RELEASE: In Addressing the United States’ Graduate Student Debt Problem, Policymakers Must Consider Equity Implications

Washington, D.C. — Today, the Center for American Progress released a new report looking at the $37 billion in student debt accrued annually by U.S. graduate students. The report finds that while student loan debt among borrowers in undergraduate programs declined by 21 percent from the 2010-11 academic year to the 2017-18 academic year, the annual student loan debt accrued by graduate students has increased by 7 percent during the same time period. Furthermore, while enrollment in undergraduate programs has slowed substantially—12 percent—during this time period, graduate enrollment is down just 1 percent. In full, the nation’s graduate student debt accounts for 40 percent of federal student loans issued each year.

Additionally, the report finds that the increase in graduate student debt has significant equity implications, including:

  • Nearly 80 percent of Black students must take out federal loans for graduate school, far greater than the 56 percent of white graduate students who take on debt for an advanced degree.
  • Not only do Black graduate students have to borrow at higher rates, but they also have to borrow more. Black students’ median federal debt for graduate school was about 25 percent higher than that of their white peers, and their total federal debt was $25,000 higher.
  • Women, Black, and Latinx students often need to earn a credential beyond a bachelor’s degree to receive pay akin to less-educated men and white individuals, respectively.
  • While Black students need higher levels of education attainment to achieve earnings similar to that of their white male peers, students in research and scholarship-based doctorate programs are half as likely to receive financial assistance in the form of fellowships or assistantships—forcing them to borrow more and in larger amounts.
  • Accordingly, the median debt for a Black student borrower finishing graduate school is 50 percent higher than that of a white borrower. This problem is compounded by the fact that Black students are more likely to borrow in graduate school and have more undergraduate debt than their white peers.

“Graduate student debt is an increasing problem in America, but given the substantial equity implications involved in confronting it, it’s critical that policymakers develop nuanced policy solutions to support women and people of color seeking to get an advanced degree,” said Ben Miller, vice president of Postsecondary Education at the Center for American Progress.

The report considers but does not endorse the following policy ideas to combat the rise of graduate student debt:

  • Adopt requirements that graduate programs must not produce more debt than their completers can pay off. This must be different and separate from the needed restoration of the gainful employment rule.
  • Hold programs accountable for whether borrowers can repay their loans and if too many need to avail themselves of a program to tie their payments to income.
  • Create dollar-based caps without any offsets on how much graduate students can borrow rather than the current limit of a school’s cost of attendance.
  • Prohibit balance billing.
  • Institute price caps on graduate programs.

Please click here to read: “Graduate School Debt: Ideas for Reducing the $37 Billion in Annual Student Loans That No One Is Talking About” by Ben Miller

For more information or to speak with an expert, please contact Colin Seeberger at or 202-741-6292.