The Cost of a Ph.D.: Students Report Hefty Debt Across Many Fields

January 16, 2014

A new crowdsourcing project provides an eye-opening glimpse into the hefty amounts of debt some graduate students take on to pay for their education and how hopeless many of them feel about their prospects for repaying it.

"Given the rate at which interest is capitalizing, I will clearly never be able to pay off this debt short of winning the lottery," wrote a literature Ph.D. student who expects to graduate in 2015.

Karen Kelsky, who runs a consulting business and a blog called The Professor Is In, started the "Ph.D. Debt Survey" on Tuesday, and as of Wednesday night it already had drawn more than 1,000 responses. The respondents are anonymous.

Ms. Kelsky said she started the survey to prove a point. In a blog post she wrote about a session she attended during the Modern Language Association's annual meeting last week, Ms. Kelsky said that Ph.D. programs were producing thousands of people burdened by six-figure debt. A reader of the post didn't believe that kind of debt load was possible—particularly for someone earning a doctoral degree in the humanities, she said.

"I thought it would be illuminating to create a crowdsourced document that solicited information about how much people owed," Ms. Kelsky said. "I was amazed and startled as the numbers started to come in."

The figures people report in the document—a mix of student-loan and credit-card borrowing—reveal staggering amounts of debt taken on by students in nearly every field reported.

One anthropologist racked up $140,000 in debt to pay tuition and cover living expenses, which included caring for a child, while earning a master's degree and a Ph.D. A historian owes $97,000. An English scholar who earned a Ph.D. nine years ago in New York City owes a total of $192,000—nearly all of it for graduate school—and doesn't expect to "live long enough to pay it all off." And a sociologist, now doing a postdoc, is $120,000 in debt for graduate school alone.

Why People Borrowed

The document elicited anecdotes about why respondents had borrowed money in the first place. Their stories have some common themes. Among them: Living on graduate-student stipends is largely impossible, especially in cities with a high cost of living. Family support doesn't exist. And when graduate students have children to support or medical problems to deal with, borrowing is almost inevitable.

"I had a child, and my partner got laid off, so I became the sole provider for the family," reported an English scholar who has a graduate-school debt of $182,000.

Another parent, who earned a Ph.D. in sociology, said a fellowship covered tuition, but a stipend of $800 a month didn't cover needs like books, food, or rent. "After I paid child care, I had $40 left over per month."

Ms. Kelsky said it was clear to her that "full funding is not adequate for most people's real-life living expenses."

Meanwhile, some respondents reported that they were paying off graduate-school debt but had no degree to show for it. A former Ph.D. student in rhetoric and composition is saddled with more than $250,000 worth of debt after dropping out in 2011.

"I'm currently filing for bankruptcy and was shocked to find out that student loans are exempt from bankruptcy claims," the former student said.

The document shows a small number of people in a variety of disciplines who are debt-free. But Ms. Kelsky has noticed a common thread among them: Their families paid their higher-education bills, or they had a partner with a full-time job, or both.

"You end up with the message that graduate school is only really financially feasible if you have family resources to fall back on," Ms. Kelsky said.

'A Big Mistake'

Without outside resources, most respondents wrote that they were struggling to repay their loans or expected to have a hard time doing so when they completed their degree. Even landing a tenure-track job doesn't make loan repayment any easier, respondents said.

"I make a payment every month, bigger than my rent, but I'll likely die with this debt unpaid, despite a TT job," reported a sociologist with $209,000 of graduate-school debt.

In a part of the document where people described plans for paying off their debt, a popular response was to hope for loan forgiveness.

"I have no plan but some hope for the 10-year forgiveness program for teaching at a public institution," wrote an anthropologist who has $96,000 in debt for graduate school. "I currently make so little money that I am not even making monthly payments. This entire endeavor was a big mistake."

Ms. Kelsky said she planned to use the data and anecdotes in the document, in part, to empower current and future graduate students as she continues to write and talk about the faltering academic job market. Already the data have helped people with hefty graduate-student loans realize that they're not the only ones grappling with how to pay back the money they borrowed to finance their education.

"My intention is to put a price tag on the Ph.D. and tell them this is what it costs, and can you afford it?" Ms. Kelsky said.

Ph.D. programs, Ms. Kelsky said, need to be "confronted with the truth about the sacrifices their students are making. They can't turn a blind eye to the financial devastation that their programs are causing." But graduate programs aren't the only culprits, she said.

"The students themselves have to do some work to overcome their own denial about the costs of this endeavor," Ms. Kelsky said. "I really want graduate students to stop allowing themselves to be deluded about what going to graduate school entails."

Yet the document shows that, for some people, the degree makes the financial burden along the way worth it. One graduate student, who is slated to earn a law degree in May, expects to pay $1,030 a month for 20 years.

"I agreed to borrow the money, and I will pay it back in full with interest," the student wrote. "If that means a reduced standard of living, then so be it, because I agreed to pay the debt. No one made me borrow $136,000."