Smooth Sailing in a Perfect Storm of Student Debt? Change and Inequality in Borrowing and Returns to Advanced Degrees

WCER Working Paper No. 2018-9

Jaymes Pyne and Eric Grodsky

August 2018, 39 pp.

ABSTRACT: Recent efforts to understand aggregate student loan debt have shifted the focus away from undergraduate borrowing and towards dramatically rising debt among graduate and professional students. We suggest educational debt plays a key role in social stratification by deterring bachelor’s degree holders from disadvantaged and underrepresented backgrounds from pursuing lucrative careers through advanced degree programs. We speculate that the ongoing personal financing of advanced degrees, changes to funding in higher education and increasing returns to and demand for post-baccalaureate degrees have created a perfect storm for those seeking a degree beyond college. We find that aggregate increases in borrowing among advanced degree students between 1996 and 2016 can be explained in part by increasing enrollment rates, particularly among master’s degree students, and large, secular increases in graduate and professional students’ undergraduate and graduate borrowing. In contrast to undergraduate debt alone, the burden of educational debt among graduate borrowers appears to have fallen on students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and historically discriminated students of color more so than their more advantaged counterparts and women more so than men. Average graduate degree wage premiums over bachelor’s degree holders are substantial for many who graduate with an advanced degree, but are particularly high for African American graduates, complicating simple conclusions about the stratification of debt at the post-graduate level.

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keywords: student debt, graduate education, higher education, inequality, returns to education