Graduate Students

Black and Hispanic Science Ph.D.'s Graduate With More Debt, Study Finds

May 07, 2013

Black and Hispanic students who earn Ph.D.'s in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics—the STEM disciplines—are more likely to go into debt than their white and Asian counterparts, says a report released on Monday by the American Institutes for Research.

The disparity is largest for blacks, who are twice as likely to owe more than $30,000 at graduation. Students from traditionally underrepresented groups may be disproportionately affected by rising tuition costs for graduate degrees, as well as financial-aid policies and practices at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, the study finds.

Using data from the 2010 Survey of Earned Doctorates from the National Science Foundation, the authors of the report, "The Price of a Science Ph.D.: Variations in Student-Debt Levels Across Disciplines and Race/Ethnicity," ask three questions: What is the debt level among STEM Ph.D.'s? Does debt differ by race, ethnicity, and gender? How does the debt among STEM Ph.D.'s compare to the debt of students with Ph.D.'s in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences?

Among students who earned a Ph.D. in a STEM discipline in 2010, about 26 percent of whites and Asians accrued debt at the graduate level, compared with about 49 percent of blacks and 36 percent of Hispanics, according to the study. Twenty-five percent of blacks and 15 percent of Hispanics owed more than $30,000 at graduation, while only about 10 percent of whites and Asians graduated with that level of debt.

Among STEM Ph.D. recipients, approximately 24 percent of blacks who relied on institutional funds, compared with 9 percent of whites and Asians who relied on such support, accrued more than $30,000 in graduate-student debt.

The authors found that, over all, more Ph.D.'s in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences, compared with those in STEM fields, had larger debt burdens. Students in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences were less likely to receive financial support from their institutions than those in the STEM disciplines, the report notes, and it took them more time, on average, to complete their studies. Their average time to complete a Ph.D. was just under eight years, compared with six years for students in the STEM fields.

Even when students finished their degrees in a timely manner, racial disparities in debt still persisted.

The authors also looked at debt accumulation along gender lines and found that women were more likely than men to graduate with debt. While racial and ethnic disparities in debt levels were much larger than gender differences, black women were more likely to owe more than $30,000 in debt than their male counterparts, whether they studied in a STEM field or another science field.

Courtney Tanenbaum, a senior researcher at the American Institutes for Research and an author of the study, says the numbers are not surprising, given the obstacles that students from underrepresented groups face in higher education. She says the report comes at a time when there is a growing demand for STEM graduates and when colleges are trying to broaden the participation of minority students in scientific fields.

"Debt levels, particularly among African-Americans, are increasing, and it's not helping to diversify the field," Ms. Tanenbaum says. "Broadening STEM talent and a diverse pool is incredibly important. But these numbers show that debt is another factor that is contributing to the low numbers of underrepresented minorities in the sciences."

Other factors that may be worth exploring in future studies, the report says, include the distance that students travel to attend graduate school, students' spending habits during graduate school, financial support from family members, marital status, and number of dependents.