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Postsecondary Education

Trends in Student Loan Debt for Graduate School Completers

(Last Updated: May 2018)

Average loan balances for students who completed a research or professional doctorate increased between 1999–2000 and 2015–16 for all degree programs for which data were available (in constant 2016–17 dollars). Average loan balances approximately doubled for those who completed medical doctorates (from $124,700 to $246,000, an increase of 97 percent), Ph.D.’s outside the field of education (from $48,400 to $98,800, an increase of 104 percent), and other non-Ph.D. doctorates (from $64,500 to $132,200, an increase of 105 percent).

Recently released data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Survey (NPSAS)1 shed new light on how the student loan burden of graduate school completers has changed over time. This spotlight analysis uses NPSAS data to describe the percentage of graduate school completers who hold student loans from undergraduate or graduate education and, for those who have student loans, the average combined balance for undergraduate and graduate school loans. Specifically, the analysis examines how trends in student loan debt vary by the following characteristics:

  • broad degree type (postbaccalaureate certificate,2 master’s degree, 3 research doctorate,4 or professional doctorate5),
  • specific degree program (for example, law, medicine, or business administration), and
  • institutional control (public, private nonprofit, or private for-profit).

This indicator uses data on the combined balance of undergraduate and graduate student loans to examine the total student loan debt burden that a typical graduate school completer faces as he or she enters the workforce. The data represent the principal balance (excluding interest) as of June 30th of the survey year. For example, the 2015–16 data represent balances as of June 30, 2016. The data include federal and private student loans, but exclude Parent PLUS loans.6 Data on graduate student loans only (separate from undergraduate loans) are available in Digest of Education Statistics 2017, table 332.45. All dollar amounts are expressed in constant 2016–17 dollars.

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Figure 1. Percentage of graduate school completers with student loans, by degree type: 2015–16
Figure 1. Percentage of graduate school completers with student loans, by degree type: 2015–16

1 Includes chiropractic, dentistry, law, medicine, optometry, pharmacy, podiatry, and veterinary medicine.

NOTE: Data refer to students who completed graduate degrees in 2015–16. Includes student loans for undergraduate and graduate studies.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2015–16 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS:16). See Digest of Education Statistics 2017, table 332.45.

Figure 2. Average cumulative student loan balance for graduate school completers, by degree type: Selected years, 1999–2000 through 2015–16
Figure 2. Average cumulative student loan balance for graduate school completers, by degree type: Selected years, 1999–2000 through 2015–16

1 Includes chiropractic, dentistry, law, medicine, optometry, pharmacy, podiatry, and veterinary medicine.

NOTE: Data refer to students who completed graduate degrees in the academic years indicated. Includes student loans for undergraduate and graduate studies. Average excludes students with no student loans. Constant dollars are based on the Consumer Price Index, prepared by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, adjusted to an academic-year basis.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 1999–2000, 2003–04, 2007–08, 2011–12, and 2015–16 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS:2000, NPSAS:04, NPSAS:08, NPSAS:12, and NPSAS:16). See Digest of Education Statistics 2017, table 332.45.

Figure 3. Percentage of master's degree completers with student loans, by degree program: 2015–16
Figure 3. Percentage of master's degree completers with student loans, by degree program: 2015–16

1 Includes public administration or policy, social work, fine arts, public health, and other.

NOTE: Data refer to students who completed graduate degrees in 2015–16. Includes student loans for undergraduate and graduate studies.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2015–16 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS:16). See Digest of Education Statistics 2017, table 332.45.

Figure 4. Average cumulative student loan balance for master's degree completers, by degree program: Selected years, 1999–2000 through 2015–16
Figure 4. Average cumulative student loan balance for master's degree completers, by degree program: Selected years, 1999–2000 through 2015–16

1 Includes public administration or policy, social work, fine arts, public health, and other.

NOTE: Data refer to students who completed graduate degrees in the academic years indicated. Includes student loans for undergraduate and graduate studies. Average excludes students with no student loans. Constant dollars are based on the Consumer Price Index, prepared by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, adjusted to an academic-year basis.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 1999–2000, 2003–04, 2007–08, 2011–12, and 2015–16 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS:2000, NPSAS:04, NPSAS:08, NPSAS:12, and NPSAS:16). See Digest of Education Statistics 2017, table 332.45.

Figure 5. Percentage of doctorate degree completers with student loans, by degree program: 2015–16
Figure 5. Percentage of doctorate degree completers with student loans, by degree program: 2015–16

1 Includes chiropractic, dentistry, optometry, pharmacy, podiatry, and veterinary medicine.

2 Includes science or engineering, psychology, business or public administration, fine arts, theology, and other.

NOTE: Data refer to students who completed graduate degrees in 2015–16. Includes student loans for undergraduate and graduate studies.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2015–16 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS:16). See Digest of Education Statistics 2017, table 332.45.

Figure 6. Average cumulative student loan balance for doctorate degree completers, by degree program: Selected years, 1999–2000 through 2015–16
Figure 6. Average cumulative student loan balance for doctorate degree completers, by degree program: Selected years, 1999–2000 through 2015–16

‡ Reporting standards not met. Either there are too few cases for a reliable estimate or the coefficient of variation (CV) is 50 percent or greater.

1 Includes chiropractic, dentistry, optometry, pharmacy, podiatry, and veterinary medicine.

2 Includes science or engineering, psychology, business or public administration, fine arts, theology, and other.

NOTE: Data refer to students who completed graduate degrees in the academic years indicated. Includes student loans for undergraduate and graduate studies. Average excludes students with no student loans. Constant dollars are based on the Consumer Price Index, prepared by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, adjusted to an academic-year basis.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 1999–2000, 2003–04, 2007–08, 2011–12, and 2015–16 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS:2000, NPSAS:04, NPSAS:08, NPSAS:12, and NPSAS:16). See Digest of Education Statistics 2017, table 332.45.

Figure 7. Percentage of graduate school completers with student loans, by degree type and control of institution: 2015–16
Figure 7. Percentage of graduate school completers with student loans, by degree type and control of institution: 2015–16

1 Includes chiropractic, dentistry, law, medicine, optometry, pharmacy, podiatry, and veterinary medicine.

NOTE: Data refer to students who completed graduate degrees in 2015–16. Includes student loans for undergraduate and graduate studies. Although rounded numbers are displayed, the figures are based on unrounded estimates.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2015–16 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS:16). See Digest of Education Statistics 2017, table 332.45.

Figure 8. Average cumulative loan balance for graduate school completers, by degree type and control of institution: 2015–16
Figure 8. Average cumulative loan balance for graduate school completers, by degree type and control of institution: 2015–16

1 Includes chiropractic, dentistry, law, medicine, optometry, pharmacy, podiatry, and veterinary medicine.

NOTE: Data refer to students who completed graduate degrees in 2015–16. Includes student loans for undergraduate and graduate studies. Average excludes students with no student loans. Constant dollars are based on the Consumer Price Index, prepared by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, adjusted to an academic-year basis.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2015–16 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS:16). See Digest of Education Statistics 2017, table 332.45.


1 NPSAS is a nationally representative survey administered every 4 years by the National Center for Education Statistics. This analysis uses data from the 1999–2000, 2003–04, 2007–08, 2011–12, and 2015–16 NPSAS data collections.

2 An award that requires completion of an organized program of study beyond a bachelor’s degree. It is designed for persons who have completed a baccalaureate degree, but does not meet the requirements of a master’s degree. Even though teacher preparation certificate programs may require a bachelor’s degree for admission, they are considered subbaccalaureate undergraduate programs, and students in these programs are undergraduate students.

3 A degree awarded for successful completion of a program generally requiring 1 or 2 years of full-time college-level study beyond the bachelor’s degree. One type of master’s degree, including the master of arts degree, or M.A., and the master of science degree, or M.S., is awarded in the liberal arts and sciences for advanced scholarship in a subject field or discipline and demonstrated ability to perform scholarly research. A second type of master’s degree is awarded for the completion of a professionally oriented program, for example, an M.Ed. in education, an M.B.A. in business administration, an M.F.A. in fine arts, an M.M. in music, an M.S.W. in social work, and an M.P.A. in public administration. Some master’s degrees—such as divinity degrees (M.Div. or M.H.L./Rav), which were formerly classified as “first-professional”—may require more than 2 years of full-time study beyond the bachelor’s degree.

4 A Ph.D. or other doctor’s degree that requires advanced work beyond the master’s level, including the preparation and defense of a dissertation based on original research, or the planning and execution of an original project demonstrating substantial artistic or scholarly achievement. Examples of this type of degree may include the following and others, as designated by the awarding institution: the Ed.D. (in education), D.M.A. (in musical arts), D.B.A. (in business administration), D.Sc. (in science), D.A. (in arts), or D.M. (in medicine).

5 A doctor’s degree that is conferred upon completion of a program providing the knowledge and skills for the recognition, credential, or license required for professional practice. The degree is awarded after a period of study such that the total time to the degree, including both preprofessional and professional preparation, equals at least 6 full-time-equivalent academic years. Some doctor’s degrees of this type were formerly classified as first-professional degrees. Examples of this type of degree may include the following and others, as designated by the awarding institution: the D.C. or D.C.M. (in chiropractic); D.D.S. or D.M.D. (in dentistry); L.L.B. or J.D. (in law); M.D. (in medicine); O.D. (in optometry); D.O. (in osteopathic medicine); Pharm.D. (in pharmacy); D.P.M., Pod.D., or D.P. (in podiatry); or D.V.M. (in veterinary medicine).

6 When comparing graduate student loan debt over time, it is important to note that Direct Subsidized Loans for graduate students were discontinued after academic year 2011–12.

7 Excludes master of arts in education degrees.

8 Excludes master of science in education degrees.

9 Other doctorate (non-Ph.D.) includes science or engineering, psychology, business or public administration, fine arts, theology, and other.

10 Other health science doctorates include chiropractic, dentistry, optometry, pharmacy, podiatry, and veterinary medicine.

11 Data for education doctorates in 1999–2000 did not meet reporting standards.

12 Data by institutional control (public, private nonprofit, or private for-profit) exclude individuals who attended more than one institution for graduate studies.

Supplemental Information

Table 332.45 (Digest 2017): Percentage of graduate degree completers with student loan debt and average cumulative amount owed, by level of education funded and graduate degree type, institution control, and degree program: Selected years, 1999-2000 through 2015-16
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