It is often said that one big advantage of going to graduate school in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) field rather than seeking an advanced degree in the humanities or from a professional school is that graduate students in science receive financial support and do not accrue debt. That generalization is largely true, finds a report issued on 6 May by the American Institutes for Research—but mainly for white and Asian students. Apparently, black and Hispanic students take big loans to finance a Ph.D. more frequently than whites or Asians do.

Among whites and Asians, only 10% of STEM Ph.D.s and 35% of SBE (social, behavioral, and economic science) Ph.D.s emerged from graduate school with more than $30,000 in graduate school debt; 73% and 44%, respectively, finished their doctorates owing nothing. But only half of black STEM Ph.D.s, a fifth of black SBE Ph.D.s, 64% of Hispanic STEM Ph.D.s, and a third of Hispanic SBE Ph.D.s entirely avoided graduate school debt. A quarter of black and 14% of Hispanic STEM Ph.D.s, as well as 58% of black and 44% of Hispanic SBE Ph.D.s, finished their Ph.D.s with more than $30,000 in graduate school loans. The remaining graduates—approximately 20% of each group—incurred debt totaling less than $30,000. Approximately 90% of STEM students of all backgrounds receive institutional support, as do approximately 60% of SBE students, the study shows.

Why are there differences in debt load? The report offers no definitive answer. It examines the possibility that "primary source of funding and time to PhD completion" may be factors, but found that these "failed to eliminate racial/ethnic differences in graduate student debt. … Other factors that may be worth exploring," the authors write, "include the distance that students travel to attend graduate school, spending patterns during graduate school, [and] the family commitments of PhD students during graduate school (e.g., marital status and number of dependents)." The various groups may also receive different amounts of support or have different levels of private resources available to spend on their graduate education, factors the report does not address.

"[T]he expected financial pay-off of their PhDs" may influence graduate students' financial decisions, the report notes. If so, "differences in graduate student debt may be related to differences in students' inflated estimates of their future salaries."

Universities must "effectively communicate to students the various options for financing their graduate school studies so they can make informed decisions when they receive offers from graduate programs," the report urges. 

Also needed for knowledgeable decision-making is realistic information about the job markets that students will be entering, which, given today's difficult circumstances in many fields, can make a sizeable debt load especially burdensome.

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.

10.1126/science.caredit.a1300101