I am looking for some pointers to research that addresses the question:

How frequently do students who have earned undergraduate degrees cite financial barriers as a major reason influencing their decision not to go on graduate study?

Anecdotally, I am personally aware of students who feel that financial considerations prevent them from pursuing graduate study (e.g., they have a family to support and they can't afford to live on a graduate student salary for so many years). I am interested in research1 that examines the prevalence of this kind of thing (subject to the usual limitations of this kind of survey research, of course).

I have come across studies on how often finances are cited as barriers facing would-be undergraduate students2, but I have not seen any equivalent research about graduate study.

1 I am not looking for answers from anecdotal evidence not supported by a study or citation. I am also not looking for answers explaining why such a study is unlikely to exist, or why it should not be trusted if it did

2 See e.g., Studies on Barriers to Higher Education in Texas, and University fees biggest barrier to wider access, research finds

  • Are you mainly interested in studies about US students, or more general? It seems like the results would be very different, since the funding schemes are different. Jan 8, 2015 at 10:14
  • @Tobias I am asking out of general interest, not any specific need, so I'd be happy with studies from any location or academic discipline.
    – ff524
    Jan 8, 2015 at 10:15
  • 2
    Not quite an answer, but something that shows that the question may simply not be as interesting when applied to the Danish system: The table on page 39 of this study au.dk/fileadmin/www.au.dk/kvalitetiphd/KVALITET_I_PHD__UK_.pdf shows that almost half the people who chose to do a PhD at Aarhus University did so (at least in part) because it was a regular job with a permanent income. Jan 8, 2015 at 10:24
  • (Note that I do find the question very interesting when applied to the American system). Jan 8, 2015 at 10:25
  • @Tobias interesting read, thanks! Anecdotally, I've heard similar motivations for graduate study from friends in Greece, where unemployment in my age bracket is... insane.
    – ff524
    Jan 8, 2015 at 10:29

1 Answer 1


Most of the research I identified describes the impact of undergraduate loan debt (as a proxy for financial burden) on pursuing graduate education. I found fewer studies discussing the direct financial burden as a deterrent, though some literature does review the impact of financial stress on graduate school completion (See Strayhorn, 2010 for further sources).

One study of undergraduates in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math fields) examined the impact of undergraduate debt on graduate school enrollment, breaking down the analysis by racial and ethnic classification (Malcom & Dowd, 2012). They found those with greater debt than the average for other students in their racial or ethnic group were less likely to enroll in graduate school within two years of graduation. Borrowing any amount of debt reduced the likelihood of enrolling in graduate school. For most racial and ethnic groups (the exceptions being African Americans and Asians with high levels of debt), graduate school enrollment declines as the level of undergraduate debt increases.

Another study of bachelor’s degree recipients examined the likelihood they transitioned to graduate school within 1 year of completing their undergraduate degree (Millet, 2003). The study found that students with more than $5,000 of debt were less likely to apply to graduate school compared to students with no debt. However, for students who expressed intent to attend graduate school and were accepted, their degree of debt did not seem to be a barrier. Additionally, the study found that the graduate school’s financial aid offer significantly predicted enrollment, and the author suggests the financial aid may counteract the burden of undergraduate debt when students decide to pursue graduate school. This paper also has a nice literature review section within this paper, which may point you to additional studies.

One study of 19 African American nurses found that financial concerns were frequently cited as barriers to attending nursing graduate programs (Mingo, 2007). In a quantitative survey, 9 students listed financial issues as one of the their primary barriers, and 1/3 of write-in answers expressed financial concerns.

However, some studies have found neutral or even positive effects of undergraduate debt on graduate school attendance. One study of undergraduates failed to find a relationship between undergraduate debt and plans to seek advanced degrees (Monks, 2001); the literature review in this paper cites several other studies, including some using national student surveys, that came to similar conclusions (see Baum & Saunders, 1998; Schapiro, O’Malley, & Litten, 1991). Additionally, 348 senior undergraduate psychology students – found that concerns about cost did not differ between students intending to apply and those not intending to apply re: grad school.

A national survey of over 7,000 undergraduate students found that undergraduate debt affected public and private university graduates differently (Zhang, 2013). For students who received their bachelor’s from a public college, debt reduced the likelihood they would attend expensive graduate programs such as doctoral, MBA, and professional degree programs; it had no effect on master’s programs. For private college graduates, debt was actually positively associated with attending MBA or professional programs, and did not effect other graduate programs either positively or negatively.

Similarly, another study sought to determine whether the 1992 Higher Education Act amendments, which expanded federal student loans and access to those loans, impacted the relationship between debt and graduate school (Kim & Eyermann, 2006). This study compared students who had graduated before and after the amendments and found that before the amendments, students with more debt were less likely to attend graduate school. After the amendments, the study found that debt did not impact low or high income students plans to attend graduate school. Additionally, they found that post-amendment middle income students actually experienced positive relationship between accessing loans and intending to pursue graduate school. The authors suggest that for these students the increased access to loans (even though it resulted in greater debt) actually facilitated their plans to pursue advanced degrees.

In sum, most studies use undergraduate student loan debt as a proxy for financial barriers to graduate education, and results have been mixed.

  • Baum, S., & Saunders, D. (1998). Life After Debt: Results of the National Student Loan Survey. Selected Text from the Final Report. Journal of Student Financial Aid, 28(3), 7-23.
  • Kim, D., & Eyermann, T. S. (2006). Undergraduate borrowing and its effects on plans to attend graduate school prior to and after the 1992 Higher Education Act amendments. Journal of Student Financial Aid, 36(2), 5-21.
  • Landrum, R. E. (2010). Intent to apply to graduate school: Perceptions of senior year psychology majors. North American Journal of Psychology, 12(2), 243-254.
  • Malcom, L. E., & Dowd, A. C. (2012). The impact of undergraduate debt on the graduate school enrollment of STEM baccalaureates. The Review of Higher Education, 35(2), 265-305.
  • Millett, C. M. (2003). How undergraduate loan debt affects application and enrollment in graduate or first professional school. Journal of Higher Education, 74(4), 386-427.
  • Mingo, A. D. (2007). Barriers and facilitators affecting African Americans continuation into graduate programs in nursing. The ABNF Journal: Official Journal of the Association of Black Nursing Faculty in Higher Education, Inc, 19(2), 51-63.
  • Monks, J. (2001). Loan burdens and educational outcomes. Economics of Education Review, 20(6), 545-550.
  • Schapiro, M. O., O'Malley, M. P., & Litten, L. H. (1991). Progression to graduate school from the “elite” colleges and universities. Economics of Education Review, 10(3), 227-244.
  • Strayhorn, T. L. (2010). Money matters: The influence of financial factors on graduate student persistence. Journal of Student Financial Aid, 40(3), 1-23.
  • Zhang, L. (2013). Effects of college educational debt on graduate school attendance and early career and lifestyle choices. Education Economics, 21(2), 154-175.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .