Office of Planning and Budgeting

New Report Suggests Graduate Student Debt Deserves Legislative Attention

A recent report by New America, titled The Graduate Student Debt Review, reveals that much of the nation’s “$1 trillion in outstanding federal student debt” is the result of expensive graduate and professional degrees, rather than unaffordable undergraduate educations.

The report, which analyses recently publicized data from the Department of Education, shows that around 40 percent of recent federal loan disbursements are for graduate student debt. Moreover, the paper shows that graduate student debt across a variety of fields—not just business school and medical school—comprises some of the largest increases in student borrowing between 2004 and 2012. Thus, the authors recommend that legislators, journalists, and the public at large adjust their understanding of student debt to recognize that it’s not just undergraduate problem.

Most news stories highlight the debt of graduate students—which tend to have much larger loan balances—yet journalists typically don’t differentiate graduate debt from undergraduate debt. EdCentral makes a compelling argument for why this lack of differentiation is a problem and why it deserves legislative attention:

“The failure to distinguish between undergraduate and graduate debt in discussions of college costs is a serious flaw in how we think about student debt. Students, families, and taxpayers invest significant resources in financing “college,” largely because a bachelor’s or associate degree is a must for anyone who wants to secure a middle-class income… But arguments for high levels of subsidy for students who attend graduate and professional school are on shakier ground. While a graduate or professional degree boosts a student’s earnings prospects and the economy at large, it is not the foundation for economic opportunity and middle-class earnings that a two- or four-year degree now provides. Students pursuing graduate degrees should be far more informed consumers. Therefore, they shouldn’t need a lot of public support to finance their next credential, which is why there are no Pell Grants for master’s degrees. That spike in debt for graduate degrees should also focus policymakers’ attention on an impending tidal wave of loan forgiveness for graduate students and the lack of loan limits for students pursuing graduate degrees.”

You can read more about New America’s report at The Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed.

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