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Graduate School Loans: An Overview of Problems and Solutions

Graduate School Loans: An Overview of Problems and Solutions

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I am grateful to the Wall Street Journal education reporters for calling my attention to the fact that median debt and median earnings data are available for graduate programs at many schools.

The articles that they published, “Financially Hobbled for Life: The Elite Master’s Degrees that Don’t Pay Off” and “Is a Graduate Degree Worth the Debt?,” triggered my reviews of their reporting tool and the College Scorecard’s updated dataset used for their data reporting.

I wound up writing five articles about the data. “Incurring Debt for Master’s Degrees – Where Is It Working?” is a commentary about the WSJ’s “Financially Hobbled for Life” article. “The Master’s Degree and Checking ROI after Student Graduation” is a review of the dataset for high and low return on investment (ROI) institutions, comparing them to the data listed for the master’s programs offered by American Public University System (APUS).

“Evaluating Grad Students’ ROI – Are Law Schools Failing?” examined the data reported for law school grads. In “More Analysis of Law School Debt and Earnings Data,” I looked at some of the inconsistencies between the data reported by the College Scorecard and other available data. Lastly, “Does the Medical Profession Warrant High Student Debt?” analyzes the data available for grads of medical schools as well as some of the data that appears to be missing.

I could continue to write about some of the other degrees included in the WSJ reporting tool. Rather than doing that, I thought I would quickly go through the remaining professional and doctoral degrees with more than five colleges reporting and provide a 30,000-foot overview.

Under the Professional Degrees category, the following degrees are listed in addition to law and medicine:

  • Chiropractic – Eight colleges are listed; the ratio of debt to earnings ranges from 3.17 (New York Chiropractic – $161,951 in median debt) to 7.41 (Life Chiropractic College West). The highest median debt is Life University at $224,700 (6.61 ratio).
  • Dentistry – Fifty-four colleges are listed; the ratio of debt to earnings ranges from 1.1 (East Carolina University – $131,425 in median debt) to 4.39 (University of Southern California). The highest median debt is University of Southern California at $397,871.
  • Optometry – Sixteen colleges are listed; the ratio of debt to earnings ranges from .6 (New England College of Optometry – $49,552 in median debt) to 2.77 (MCPHS University). The highest median debt is Western University of Health Sciences at $218,346.
  • Pharmacy – Eighty-five colleges are listed; the ratio of debt to earnings ranges from .36 (Northeastern University – $37,167 in median debt) to 2.84 (Touro College). For the size of the category, this category had the highest number of colleges with a ratio below 1.0 (36 colleges). The highest median debt is Touro College at $254,662.
  • Nursing – Eight colleges are listed; the ratio of debt to earnings ranges from .26 (Touro University California – $27,013 in median debt) to .58 (University of Kansas). The highest median debt is the University of Kansas at $98,139.
  • Rehabilitation and Therapeutic Professions – Forty-two colleges are listed; the ratio of debt to earnings ranges from .29 (Northeastern University – $20,500 in median debt) to 2.69 (Creighton University). The highest median debt is Creighton University at $177,100. Interestingly, all earnings are in a very narrow band, so the median debt for each institution makes the difference in the ratio.

Again, I noticed that there are some universities with professional schools that are not included in these categories. I may attempt to reconcile each category with specialty accreditation listings, but I will also notify the Department of Education College Scorecard team.

In the doctorate classification, there are 11 categories. A couple of these categories appear to have an overlap with the professional classification, which could lead to schools being in the wrong class (I have not attempted a reconciliation). These categories are:

  • Business Administration – Nine colleges are listed; the ratio of debt to earnings ranges from .45 (Northcentral University – $46,214 in median debt) to 1.46 (The Chicago School of Professional Psychology at Los Angeles). The highest median debt is Case Western Reserve University at $175,372.
  • Clinical Counseling and Applied Psychology – Twenty-nine colleges are listed; the ratio of debt to earnings ranges from .7 (Loyola University Chicago – $46,572 in median debt) to 3.69 (Palo Alto University). The highest median debt is Palo Alto University at $252,000.
  • Curriculum and Instruction – Nine colleges are listed; the ratio of debt to earnings ranges from .53 (University of Florida – $38,416 in median debt) to 1.61 (Capella University). The highest median debt is Capella University at $112,244.
  • Education, General – Sixteen colleges are listed; the ratio of debt to earnings ranges from .42 (Harvard University – $42,000 in median debt) to 1.9 (Capella University). The highest median debt is Nova Southeastern University at $125,311.
  • Education Administration and Supervision – Sixty colleges are listed; the ratio of debt to earnings ranges from .3 (Indiana State University – $28,000 in median debt) to 2.16 (Nova Southeastern University). The highest median debt is Nova Southeastern University at $161,113.
  • English Language and Literature – Six colleges are listed; the ratio of debt to earnings ranges from .37 (The University of Texas at Austin – $17,522 in median debt) to 1.61 (Florida State University). The highest median debt is Florida State University at $85,957.
  • Music – Thirteen colleges are listed; the ratio of debt to earnings ranges from .89 (University of North Texas – $40,800 in median debt) to 2.2 (University of Rochester). The highest median debt is University of Rochester at $87,612.
  • Psychology, General – Twelve colleges are listed; the ratio of debt to earnings ranges from .5 (University of Illinois at Chicago – $37,150 in median debt) to 3.6 (Saybrook University). The highest median debt is Saybrook University at $187,494.
  • Nursing – Eighteen colleges are listed; the ratio of debt to earnings ranges from .18 (California State University – Fresno – $27,775 in median debt) to 1.05 (University of Iowa). The highest median debt is University of Iowa at $108,907.
  • Rehabilitation and Therapeutic Professions – Twenty-three colleges are listed; the ratio of debt to earnings ranges from .71 (Saint Louis University – $49,890 in median debt) to 2.01 (Duke University). The highest median debt is New York University at $154,516.
  • Teacher Education and Professional Development – Six colleges are listed; the ratio of debt to earnings ranges from .58 (Boston University – $41,750 in median debt) to 2.38 (Nova Southeastern University). The highest median debt is Nova Southeastern at $116,440.

All the professional doctorate categories in this list have led to employment for their graduates, but graduates in some categories earn more than others. I am surprised with some of the high debt to earnings ratios. A useful research paper topic would be to find explanations for why grad students borrow so much money versus what their projected earnings are.

The other doctorate categories are interesting in the sense that there are many more colleges and universities that award doctoral degrees that are not included. Their exclusion is most likely because their programs do not graduate enough students annually to maintain the anonymity that the Department of Education’s College Scorecard criteria requires. I note that the median debt balance for most of these categories and colleges are generally lower than the median debt balances for professional doctorates.

I have not read or heard of a research paper that compares median earnings for undergraduates to the median earnings for graduate programs that they matriculate and graduate from after their undergrad programs. With the latest data provided by the College Scorecard, it’s only a matter of time until a researcher attempts to do that.

On the surface, it appears to me that incremental earnings for graduate programs do not justify the incremental debt. If a student is fortunate enough to receive a fellowship, scholarship, or employer reimbursement for a graduate degree, then the ROI may be measured differently and just include the investment of time which is not insubstantial for a doctoral program or a master’s degree that takes two or more years to complete.

I look forward to additional data as well as your thoughts.

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Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, and as a member of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.

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