National Institute on Aging

African Americans and the Mountain of Graduate Student Loan Debt

The issue of student debt has become a major issue in the 2020 presidential election. But one part of the crisis that gets little attention is the mountain of debt taken on by graduate students. A new report from the Center for American Progress finds that graduate students are taking on $37 billion in debt each year. Graduate programs enroll 15 percent of all students in higher education, yet they account for 40 percent of federal student loans issued each year.

Nearly 80 percent of Black students completing their graduate degrees in the 2015-16 academic year had accumulated federal debt for their graduate education and the median amount of this debt was more than $51,000. In addition, almost 90 percent of Black or African American students who took on federal loans for graduate school and finished in the 2015-16 academic year still had debt from undergraduate studies. The median federal undergraduate debt for graduate students taking out loans was $27,000.

The report states that “the sustained rise in graduate debt also has substantial equity implications, particularly for Black students. Black students are more likely to borrow in graduate school and have more undergraduate debt than their White peers. As a result, the median debt for a Black student borrower finishing graduate school is 50 percent higher than that of a White borrower.”

The crisis has become so bad that many borrowers with large debt balances have interest charges that are larger than the payments they are making. Thus, the balances they owe continue to rise.

The report also notes that 80 percent of Black students enrolled in research doctoral programs are taking on federal loan debt compared to only 56 percent of White students in these doctoral programs. One reason for this discrepancy is the fact that 44 percent of White students in these programs receive fellowships or teaching assistant positions compared to only 22 percent of Black students enrolled in these doctoral programs.

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