Smooth Sailing in a Perfect Storm of Student Debt? Change and Inequality in Borrowing and Returns to Advanced Degrees

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Wisconsin Center for Education Research


Recent efforts to understand aggregate student loan debt have shifted the focus away from undergraduate borrowing and toward dramatically rising debt among graduate and professional students. The authors suggest educational debt plays a key role in social stratification by deterring bachelor’s degree holders from disadvantaged and underrepresented backgrounds from pursuing lucrative careers through advanced degree programs. In contrast to undergraduate debt alone, the burden of educational debt among graduate borrowers appears to have fallen on students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and historically discriminated students of color more so than their more advantaged counterparts and women more so than men. Average graduate degree wage premiums over bachelor’s degree holders are substantial for many who graduate with advanced degrees, but are particularly high for African American graduates, complicating simple conclusions about the stratification of debt at the postgraduate level.



graduate education, African American students, students of color, equal educational opportunity, student loans