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Is Grad School Worth It? Webber and Burns Examine the Debt Crisis

Karen Webber and Rachel Burns

As enrollment in graduate programs is increasing, so is educational debt. Many students wonder if they can afford to stay in school and how they can reduce the debt burden of attending college.

Using national data on student finance and institutional expenditures, Karen Webber, professor emerita of higher education at the McBee Institute of Higher Education, and Rachel Burns (MIHE Ph.D. 2018) a senior policy analyst at SHEEO, relate trends in student demographics and institution types on the amount of graduate debt. 

The purpose of the study is “to obtain a deeper understanding of changes in educational debt for graduate and professional students from 2000 to 2016 and to specifically consider the implications of educational debt by race/ethnicity and institution sector.”

Webber and Burns found that nearly 57% of graduate students relied on loans to finance their graduate degrees in 2016. “Over the 16-year period, the overall number of graduate students who borrowed increased, as did the mean amount borrowed,” they write.

They encourage institutions to pay attention to the “need to provide opportunities for enrollment without creating disproportionately higher debt for students of color.” 

Their research shows interesting trends lines with several groups experiencing only modest increases or declines in overall rates of burrowing (2000-2016), but with individual burrowers incurring higher amounts of debt.

Overall institution finances have varying relationships with the borrowing trends. Differences among graduate programs’ assistantship support, tuition waivers, and stipends contribute to disparities in graduate student borrowing rates. 

Webber and Burns advocate for more equitable funding of public institutions and better guidance of loan repayment and forgiveness plans to help more students realize the benefits of advanced degrees.

The article, “The Price of Access: Graduate Student Debt for Students of Color 2000 to 2016” appears in The Journal of Higher Education

Read the full article.

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Professor Emerita of Higher Education
PhD, 2018

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