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African American and Latino PhDs in Science and Engineering More Likely to Have High Student Loan Debt

May 15, 2013

While much of the recent media attention on student loan debt has focused on borrowing by undergraduates, debt levels among doctoral students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) can be particularly pronounced. Students in STEM fields often have large debts due to the need to purchase laboratory equipment and other expenses related to graduate-level work.

A new report from the American Institute for Research (AIR) Center for Stem Education and Innovation demonstrates that borrowing among Latino and African American PhD students is substantially higher than other racial/ethnic groups. The AIR report is based on information collected from the 2010 Survey of Earned Doctorates, conducted by the National Science Foundation. AIR's analysis is limited to U.S. citizens and permanent residents who received doctoral degrees from accredited graduate programs in academic year 2009-10.

Overall, only 11 percent of PhD recipients in STEM fields accrued $30,000 or more in student loan debt for graduate studies (this figure does not include any students who may have borrowed as undergraduates). But the incidence of borrowing by race/ethnicity varied substantially. African American STEM doctoral recipients were more than twice as likely as white-non-Hispanics and Asian/Pacific Islander Americans (25 percent versus 10 percent) to leave their programs with more than $30,000 in graduate student loans, while 14 percent of Latinos left their institutions with this level of indebtedness. Conversely, 73 percent of white non-Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islander STEM PhD recipients reported having no graduate debt at all, versus 51 percent of African Americans and 64 percent of Latinos.

Results by Gender and Race/Ethnicity

Data by race/ethnicity and gender show that African American men were substantially more likely to borrow to achieve their doctorates than other groups. About 27 percent of African American male STEM doctoral recipients left their universities with more than $30,000 in graduate debt, compared with 15 percent of Latino and 10 percent of white non-Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islander American males. Among women, African Americans were also more likely to have borrowed at the highest levels (22 percent) than their Latino (13 percent) and white non-Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islander (10 percent) counterparts.

Level of Debt Related to Time to Degree

As might be expected, the amount of student loan debt was somewhat correlated with the amount of time students needed to complete their degree programs-that is, generally speaking, the longer students were enrolled in their graduate programs, the more likely they were to finish owing large amounts of debt. In 2010, the median time to degree for all doctoral degree recipients in STEM fields was 6.3 years. Latinos who took more than 6.3 years to complete their programs were nearly twice as likely to accrue over $30,000 in graduate student debt as those who did not (19 percent versus 10 percent). African Americans who finished in less than the median time were also much less likely to have high levels of graduate-related borrowing (19 percent compared with 28 percent). White non-Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islanders who finished below the median time to degree also had a much lower incidence of borrowing at the highest levels than those who took longer than the median (8 percent compared with 12 percent).

Complimentary copies of the report are available from the AIR Web site


Ken Redd
Director, Research and Policy Analysis