Student debt has become a dominant topic of discussion in graduate education in recent years. Nearly two-thirds of graduate degree recipients, including professional degree recipients, borrowed to pay for their graduate education in academic year (AY) 2011/121, and about $31.4 billion was disbursed to graduate students in the form  of federal direct student loans during fiscal year (FY) 2014/15.2 However, numbers such as these, which are often displayed in the form of eye-catching charts, figures, and headlines, can oversimplify the landscape of graduate student debt and portray it as being rather homogeneous. They usually lack fine print that describes strengths and weaknesses of data sources.

    The topic of graduate student financial support has also been consistently noted as one of the chief concerns among Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) member graduate deans (Allum, 2014); however, as the circumstances vary by each and every campus, there is no single data point or figure that can fully capture the condition of graduate student debt. More detail is the key to shedding some light on this issue, and graduate deans wishing to explain the state of graduate student debt on their respective campuses will need to either uncover some data on their own or in collaboration with other campus offices. This article will help do that by expanding upon an existing CGS resource, Understanding Graduate Student Debt Data (Council of Graduate Schools, 2014b), offering some specifics about the current state of graduate student debt, and posing some general questions that graduate deans might consider answering for themselves.

    National Graduate Student Debt Data

    There are several data sources that are typically referenced in national portrayals of graduate student debt. Although each data source offers a reliable national dataset capable of telling us something about graduate student debt, they cannot answer all of the questions that we might have about the issue. Moreover, because of the limitations that each data source has numbers seldom speak for themselves; thus, each statistic must be couched with appropriate contexts and nuance. Here are some illustrative examples of what these data might tell us, and what they might not.

    National Postsecondary Student Aid Study.  The most common data source is the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), a nationally representative survey of student financial aid that is administered by the US Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) every three to four years. The most recent report indicates that a little less than two-thirds (65%) of US citizens and permanent residents who earned graduate degrees in the same year took out student loans, including federal direct student loans, toward graduate education with the median amount of $40,000. These amounts, however, vary by degree objective. To demonstrate, CGS has computed median cumulative borrowing for graduate education of graduate degree recipients by degree type using NCES PowerStats, an online data tool (Table 1), some of which have already been included in some CGS online resources (see Council of Graduate Schools, 2014a and 2015). Master’s and doctoral degree recipients were less likely (64%) than law degree (88%) or medical sciences professional degree recipients (88%) to have borrowed to support their graduate education. Moreover, the median amount borrowed by master’s and doctoral degree recipients ($36,000) was far less than that of law graduates ($122,406) and medical graduates ($135,000). Even within master’s and doctoral degree recipients, borrowingpatterns vary. For example, although PhD and EdD recipients were less likely to have borrowed (54%) than master’s degree recipients (65%), the median amount of cumulative graduate borrowing was higher for PhD and EdD degree recipients ($54,566), and $35,131 for master’s degree recipients, a likely reflection of longer times-to-degree. In contrast, three-fourths (75%) of other master’s degree recipients (e.g., MSW, MPA, MPH, etc.) have borrowed for their graduate education with the median amount of $37,600.

    It has been said that there is no such thing as a typical graduate student (Allum & Okahana, 2014), and the ability to disaggregate results by finer groups of students would be useful. Infact, the NPSAS dataset does include information regarding institutional characteristics (e.g., public, private, not-for-profit, very high research activity universities, master’s comprehensive colleges and universities, etc.), as well as student characteristics (e.g., gender, race/ethnicity, Pell recipients, etc.). While these variables allow researchers and analysts to explore graduate student indebtedness with more precision and in ways that are sensitive to the diversity of the graduate education community, the extent to which NPSAS data can be disaggregated has its limits. Examining these data too narrowly often yields unreliable estimates of true national figures. For example, the median amount borrowed for graduate education by MSW degree recipients in AY2011-12 was $29,000, with the 95% confidence interval that ranges between $13,884 and $44,116, a range of more than $30,000. In other words, the median borrowing amount of $29,000 for MSW degree recipients is not a reliable estimate of the true national median, and cannot be further examined to account for geographical difference, thus taking away its benchmarking value.

    Loan Volumes Data. Another data source is the loan volumes data for federal direct student loans, which is published by the US Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid Data Center. The most recent data shows that about 35% of all federal direct student loans in FY2014/15, including about $23.9 billion in unsubsidized Stafford loans and $7.5 billion in Grad PLUS loans, were directed to graduate students, including professional degree students. The fact that graduate students who comprise only 17% of postsecondary students3 are receiving 35% of all federal direct student loans may seem alarming to some. This neither conveys the whole picture, as there is more to federal student aid than just loans, nor does it provide an accurate portrayal of master’s and research doctoral education given the fact that these data include professional degree seeking students.

    For example, according to the College Board, when including Pell Grants and other grants, graduate students’ share of federal  aid in 2013/14 was 24% (Baum, Elliot, and Ma, 2014) (Figure 1) while for undergraduate students, federal grants accounted for 57% of the total federal aid, only 5% of federal student financial assistance for graduate students was in a form of grants. In other words, the relatively high amount borrowed by graduate students is a result of less available grant aid for graduate students.

    The National Student Aid Data Center also reports loan volumes data for federal direct student loans by each institution. This allows comparisons of total unsubsidized Stafford loans for graduate students, as well as total GradPLUS loan amounts between multiple institutions. As with NPSAS data, loan volumes can also be compared according to a number of institutional characteristics.

    These are potentially interesting comparisons; however, since only institutional aggregated data are reported, there are some limitations. For example, an institution offering a large number of professional degree programs, which according to Table 1 are far more likely to have borrowed and to have borrowed in higher amounts than master’s and doctoral degree recipients, will reflect considerably larger total loan volumes than an institution offering a smaller number of professional degree programs, even master’s and doctoral degree students are not borrowing as much. Moreover, some master’s and doctoral programs may also be housed in various professional schools, instead of the graduate school or graduate division at a particular institution, reducing the extent to which true apple-to-apples comparisons can be reasonably made.

    Other Data Sources. Less commonly cited is the Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED), coordinated by the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Survey of Consumer Finance (SCF), implemented by the Federal Reserve Bank. The SED offers aggregated educational debt for those who earned doctorate degrees; however, it does not report the graduate student debt data for master’s degree recipients who account for about three-quarters of all graduate degree recipients.4 The SCF captures educational debt for entire households by highest degrees; however, this alone does not offer insights as to types and fields of graduate degrees that would allow more nuanced analysis.

    What Now?

    Graduate student debt is an important topic of discussion, but the discussion must be informed by appropriate data that offers contextual information that help interpret numbers. National-level aggregate data, which the current debate on the topic primarily rely on are relatively simple to find and comprehend. When coupled with anecdotes of graduate students with large sums of debt, these figures seem particularly compelling; however, they may also be misleading. Thus, a more accurate portrayal of graduate student debt is necessary, and graduate schools may be in a position to collect compatible data.

    For example, NPSAS partly relies on administrative records to collect student aid data, including student loans. This means that much of the data needed to create a compatible dataset are already within each institution. Graduate deans have an opportunity to reach out to financial aid, bursars, or institutional research officials to seek some of these data at the institutional level. Specifically, we suggest three sets of numbers for graduate deans, as well as program heads to explore: (1) a breakdown of the total graduate financial aid volume by sources (e.g., federal, institutional, private, etc.) and types (e.g., loans, fellowships, assistantships, etc.), (2) average and quartile scores of student debt levels of graduate students, and (3) workforce participation rates and cohort default rates of graduate degree recipients.

    Knowing distributions of graduate financial aid sources and types will enhance your ability to inform internal, as well as external, discussion about support and investment in graduate education. Also, that will add context to student debt levels at your institution or graduate programs. Workforce participation rates and cohort default rates can also inform discussion around student loans and other forms of financial aid as investments in the labor market. All this information, by gathering your local data, will be more relatable and relevant than national benchmarks to local decision-makers and stakeholders, such as other senior administrators and policy makers—and help us make a better case for graduate education.

    By Hironao Okahana, Director, Statistical Analysis and Policy Research, Council of Graduate Schools and Jeff Allum, Assistant Vice President, Research and Policy Analysis, Council of Graduate Schools


    End Notes

    1According to the US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2011-12 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study. Computation by the author via NCES PowerStats Ver. 1.0.

    2According to the US Department of Education, National Financial Aid Data Center, 2014-2015 Award Year Direct Loan Volume by School. Computation by the author.

    3According to the US Department of Education, Digest of Education Statistics, 2014, Table 303.45. Computation by the author.

    4According to the US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2011-12 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study. Computation by the author via NCES PowerStats Ver. 1.0.



    Allum, J. (2014). Data Sources: Results from the 2014 CGS Pressing Issues Survey. GradEdge 3(4), 4-5.

    Council of Graduate Schools (2014b). Understanding graduate student debt data. Washington, DC: The Author. Available for download at

    Council of Graduate Schools (2014a). Graduate student debt fact sheet. Washington, DC: The Author. Available for download at

    Council of Graduate Schools (2015). Graduate student debt: Q & A. Washington, DC: The Author. Available for download at

    Allum, J., & Okahana, H. (2014). Data Sources: Anything but typical: Select characteristics of first-year graduate students. GradEdge, 3(2), 5-7.

    Baum, S., Elliott, D.C., & Ma, J. (2014). Trends in student aid, 2014. Washington, DC: College Board.


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