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Pricey graduate degrees help fuel the student debt crisis

Kelly Dilworth

Usually when we talk about student debt, we’re referring to the loans undergraduates take on to finance their educations. But a new report from the New America Foundation suggests that graduate school students may be having an even tougher time affording their degrees.

“Much of America’s student debt problem may be a result of expensive graduate and professional degrees — not unaffordable undergraduate educations,” wrote New America’s Jason Deslisle in a summary. “In fact, around 40 percent of recent federal loan disbursements are for graduate student debt, suggesting that a large chunk of the ubiquitous ‘$1 trillion in outstanding federal student debt’ number is, in fact, graduate debt.”

Pricey graduate degrees are helping fuel the student debt crisis

According to the report, the average graduate student borrows substantially more than the average undergraduate by the time they finish school. For example, the median amount of debt Master of Arts candidates incurred by the time they walked the stage was $59,000 in 2012 — up from $38,000 (in inflation-adjusted dollars) in 2004.

The average undergraduate, by contrast, took on debt of just over $29,000 in 2012 to complete his or her degree.

It’s even more expensive to obtain a professional degree, such as a law or medical degree, according to the report. The typical law student, for example, borrowed a combined $140,616 to get both a bachelor’s degree and a law degree in 2012. The typical medical student borrowed more than $160,000.

Meanwhile, aspiring public servants — who are traditionally paid much less than their counterparts in industry — are also racking up substantial student debt burdens. Half of all aspiring teachers, for example, who borrowed for a master’s in education degree graduated with a combined $50,879 or more in debt.

For me, it wasn’t worth it
The latest figures, culled from Department of Education data, hit painfully close to home. In the first couple years after college, I repeatedly applied to various graduate programs, determined to spend a few more years in school.

I chose prestige over practicality and applied to only the most expensive schools. I should have known that I wouldn’t receive as much financial aid as I likely would have if I were an undergraduate. But when I was accepted to the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia, I was shocked by the amount I was expected to pay.

I would have had to take on more than $60,000 in loans to finance a master’s degree that took only a year to complete. Even though I had wanted to attend the J-School at Columbia since I was in the eighth grade, I just couldn’t stomach the amount of debt it would have taken to complete that degree.

A year later, I adjusted my ambitions and tried again. This time, I mostly applied to state schools, with the exception of Carnegie Mellon (which ultimately ended up being too expensive, even with a sizable scholarship). But even then, I still couldn’t make the math work in my favor (even for an in-state program) and once again, decided to pass.

Unless you’re applying to a fully funded graduate program (which can still be costly when you factor in the summers that aren’t funded by a teaching assistantship), graduate school is a lot more expensive than I realized.

When you’re already carrying debt left over from your undergrad days, it’s even harder to justify.

I’m sure there are many graduate students who are glad they took on extra debt to get another degree because they see larger paychecks down the road. But I feel for those who are drowning in monthly payments and living like a student years after they finished their degree.

For those who don’t go into a high-paying profession, such as medicine or law, taking on more debt than they’re likely to make in a year may not be worth it in the long run — especially if they wreck their credit trying to make payments they can’t afford.

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