A student advocate at my institution recently claimed that grad students have more debt than undergrads. This surprised me, because I would expect that typical grad students are the kind of student that would be able to gather more financial aid (scholarships, awards, fellowships, etc.) during their time as an undergrad than typical undergrads. Furthermore, most PhD students (and many masters students) have their tuition waived while working as a TA/RA, so they accrue little/no additional debt. Of course, this likely varies with field, too: students in STEM are more likely to have institutional funding while law or medical students often have to pay their own way.

While I don't know if the statistic I quoted was comparing undergrads who haven't yet accrued their full measure of debt to grads who have all of their undergrad debt, it begs an interesting question:

Do undergraduate students typically have more student debt than graduate students have, and (broadly) how does this vary with field of study?

The comparison ought to be made after each group graduates from their respective program, since comparing a 1st year undergraduate's debt to a 1st year PhD student's debt clearly would not be helpful.

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    Well, grad students may not be taking out students loans but they are likely not paying down their loans from undergrad, which may be accruing interest. – Austin Henley Mar 22 '17 at 18:33
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    I'm sure it varies wildly with field of study and individual. I took out a small subsidized (i.e. no interest while I'm in school) loan as an undergrad that I will need to pay back when I graduate from my PhD, but grad school has cost me nothing but lost opportunity. In fact, I'll be a bit in the black overall since the cost of living in my city is so cheap. My MD & Lawyer friends will be in debt for years from their student loans, and though their salary will be higher, their lifestyle demands will also be more expensive, so I may still come out "ahead" (financially). – icurays1 Mar 22 '17 at 18:52
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    @AustinHenley - They should not be accruing interest, if the individuals have done their paperwork correctly. – aparente001 Mar 23 '17 at 6:26
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    @aparente001 Unsubsidized loans (like mine) begin accruing interest immediately. – Austin Henley Mar 23 '17 at 6:28
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    @aparente001 You don't have to make payments as a student but the interest is being applied. So yes, it's deferred but the amount is growing. – Austin Henley Mar 23 '17 at 6:30

I think you are underestimating the number of graduate students who do not get any form of financial support. Like you said, most students in STEM or engineering PhD programs full receive full support. PhD students in humanities/social sciences departments are less funded compared to STEM students, but at least are given tuition remissions.

On the other hand, majority of MA students in any discipline generally receives no support. Then there is MBA students, law students, doctoral residents etc. They are the ones who make up a big portion of all graduate students and most of them have to get student loan to complete their graduate programs.

For example, a typical law school graduate would end up with 60k-100k+ loans at the time they pass the bar and get a job.


I think it's silly to talk about cumulative debt, adding undergraduate debt to whatever a student might accrue as a grad student, and instead ask whether grad students accumulate more as grad students than undergrads do as undergrads. And the answer, I'm pretty sure, varies enormously across fields. Many students at top law schools borrow the entire cost of their education (say $220K as of a year or two ago), but they expect to earn enough to pay down that debt and make it worthwhile. Some places offer fellowships, even covering the total cost over those 3 years, to attract excellent students. But most are borrowing up to their noses. Same for med schools I imagine. In arts & sciences, students often can get fellowships or funding as research assistants or teaching assistants. When I got a PhD in computer science I didn't borrow any money as a grad student.

Bottom line: I think the typical debt load in certain fields (law, medicine, maybe business) is higher per/year than undergrads -- who generally can't borrow the entire cost -- and in others it is (close to) nonexistent.

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    Why is it silly? It seems more silly to me to consider graduate debt alone, when the student has to repay both forms of debt and undergraduate debt isn't forgiven for being a graduate student. Debt-per-year values also don't tell you much, because regardless of the length of a program, $20k debt after 1 year and $20k debt after 5 years is still $20k+interest to pay back after graduating. – Bryan Krause Mar 22 '17 at 19:48
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    My point was that the question started with "A student advocate at my institution recently claimed that grad students have more debt than undergrads.". Of course they have "at least as much" if they start with whatever the undergrad debt is. So if you're going to compare whether it's more or less, I think the only reasonable comparison is the amount accrued as one or the other. Of course the earlier debt carries over. – Fred Douglis Mar 22 '17 at 19:58
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    Not necessarily true, the faulty logic there is assuming that undergrad debt for undergrads bound for grad school is equal to undergrad debt for those who aren't. – Bryan Krause Mar 22 '17 at 20:32
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    @FredDouglis No, I do understand what you are saying, I just disagree with your characterization of it as "silly" - likely the factor that impacts the actual people involved, the students, is the affordability of their debt payments upon graduation. Graduate students and undergraduate students are not simply a different longitudinal sample of the same group of students. The OP had assumed that grad students would have had less undergraduate debt than average before hearing the statistics, and was wondering about the source/background of those statistics. – Bryan Krause Mar 23 '17 at 0:25
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    No, that is not the question I think was asked, but the OP specifically said in the question "This surprised me, because I would expect that typical grad students are the kind of student that would be able to gather more financial aid (scholarships, awards, fellowships, etc.) during their time as an undergrad than typical undergrads" - indicating that they consider undergrad debt as at least part of the debt carried by graduate students. The question Do graduate students take on more debt per year than undergraduate students? is not what was asked, either. – Bryan Krause Mar 23 '17 at 15:00

While the article "The Shame of PhD Debt" does not directly answer the question of whether graduate or undergraduate students have more debt, you may well find it a worthwhile read because it explores some of the reasons for accruing significant debt in graduate programs. You may find the surveys referred to in this article especially useful for thinking about and understanding debt at all levels in higher education. These surveys contain self-reported data from graduate students across disciplines, who explain how much debt they accrued at undergraduate/graduate levels and why.

According to the data from the second survey (which I strongly encourage you to have a look at), there is great variety among amounts of debt even within fields. Although it does appear that 'hard science' types are more likely to escape both graduate and undergraduate education with less debt than arts & humanities students, I found it surprising that many of the people with zero debt were from arts, humanities, and social science fields. Also, most of the people with zero debt did not necessarily have terrific scholarships. Rather, they were independently wealthy or had a spouse/partner supporting them. Again, I suggest you look at the data, yourself. (If anyone feels so compelled, perhaps we could discuss our thoughts on the data in chat to avoid clogging the comments section.)

Note: I think it is worth pointing out that some people conceptualize time in graduate school as 'lost wages,' and if a student also has unpaid undergraduate debt, that debt continues to grow during graduate school. Lost wages and loan interest could mean that many graduate students end up with far more debt that some undergraduates, though I am sure this varies greatly by field. I cannot find a source that directly answers your original question, but according to the Institute for College Access and Success, 68% of (public/non-profit) college seniors in the U.S. left undergraduate programs with debt, with an average of $30,000. This should provide some frame of reference for thinking about the accrual of debt through undergraduate into graduate school.

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