Doctoral Students With Large Loans Finish Fastest

February 09, 2010

Doctoral students who take out large loans complete their degrees more quickly than do students who have smaller loans or no loans, according to a recent study. One possible reason: The large loans free people from the need to take part-time jobs, which cut into time available for their graduate work.

The study, by two researchers at the University of Kansas School of Education, used data from the National Science Foundation's Survey of Earned Doctorates to examine whether loan amount influences the time it takes to complete a doctoral degree. The data came from all 43,354 people who received doctorates in the 12-month period ending in June 2005.

The study was conducted by Dongbin Kim, an assistant professor at Kansas, and Cindy Otts, a doctoral student. An early draft of a report on the study, "The Effect of Loans on Time to Doctorate Degree," was presented at the Association for Institutional Research conference in 2008, and now The Journal of Higher Education has published the paper's final version.

The study defined a "large loan" as one exceeding $50,000 for undergraduate and graduate study combined. It found that, except in the social sciences, students with large loans tended to complete their doctoral degrees more quickly. Ms. Kim said that large loans may let doctoral candidates dedicate themselves to being full-time students, which would shorten their time to complete their degrees. Also, she suggested that students with large loans may want to finish their degrees quickly so they can start paying off the debt sooner.

The study acknowledges an important limitation: It did not include data from students who drop out of programs, who make up more than half of all doctoral students. It is possible that some students drop out because of the burden of large loans, but because there are no data available for those students, this study considers only degree recipients.

Discomfort as a Motivator

Sharon M. Brucker is one of the authors of Educating Scholars (Princeton University Press), which includes a chapter on how financial support influences the completion of doctorates. While the book doesn't look specifically at loans, Ms. Brucker said, people who have guaranteed financial packages tend to take longer to complete degrees.

"When you're comfortable, it takes longer," she said. "When you're uncomfortable, you're going to get finished."

Ms. Kim and Ms. Otts's study also looks at how the specific type of financial assistance a student receives affects the amount of time it takes to complete a degree. For instance, the analysis shows that students who are compensated for being teaching assistants take longer to finish than students who receive support in the form of research assistantships or fellowships.

"If they want to be a faculty member eventually, having teaching experience could be very important," Ms. Kim said. However, she added, for students who wish to go other routes, teaching may simply delay the amount of time it takes them to get a degree, without any direct benefit to their career.

Peter A. Rickman, a co-president of the Teaching Assistants' Association at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, was not surprised that the study found that being a teaching assistant can lengthen the amount of time it takes to complete a degree. However, he said, being a research assistant or project assistant could have a similar effect. He added that assistantships are crucial even for the students who don't want to stay in academe.

"Assistantships are an important part of every grad's time in school, beyond just the funding concerns," he said. "It's really important for grads to be contributing to an academic community."

The study did not look expressly at financial support in the summer, but Ms. Brucker said that such assistance is critical.

"We found that, of all the kinds of financial support, one of the kinds that made the biggest difference is to have additional support in the summer," she said. "In the sciences, everyone has support in the summer. In the humanities, it is much less common."

Patterns by Race

The study also examines how the relationship between loan amount and time to degree is affected by race and ethnicity, field of study, and type of institution.

Ms. Kim noted that black and Hispanic students are less likely than their Asian and white counterparts to receive research assistantships. A research assistantship can help prepare a student for the job market, she said, and shorten the time it takes to complete a degree. Though faculty members would probably want to choose research assistants based on merit alone, she said, it would be good for professors to have an incentive, like a grant, to give research assistantships to black and Hispanic students.

With regard to field of study, students in the humanities took the longest to complete their degrees, followed by students in education and the social sciences. Engineering students finished most quickly. The analysis also showed that students in the humanities and social sciences were twice as likely to borrow at the graduate level than students in engineering, the physical sciences, and biological sciences.

Finally, the study showed that, except for tuition and Carnegie classification, an institution's characteristics do not affect the time it takes students to complete their degrees.

It found that doctoral students at research-intensive institutions borrow more than those at research-extensive institutions, and that students in the social sciences at research-extensive institutions take significantly longer to complete a doctorate.

It also found that students in the biological sciences, engineering, and the humanities at institutions with higher tuition take significantly longer to complete their doctorates.