Debt for Master of Arts Degree Increases by Double the National Average

Percentage Increase of Grad Student Borrowing by Program (2004-2012)

What on earth could possess a person to borrow $43,000 for a Master of Arts degree? There is no possible way that could be a good idea. Financially speaking, an MA is worth little, if anything, more than a bachelor’s degree. Borrowing $43,000 for a Master of Arts degree is insane.

This $43,000 figure comes from a piece by Jordan Weissmann over at Slate in which he breaks down recent findings from the New America Foundation on the student loan borrowing habits of graduate students. Weissmann’s piece is accompanied by some nifty graphics that illustrate graduate student borrowing trends and percentages of federal student loan disbursements.

My favorite graphic from the piece, entitled “How Much Do Students Borrow During Grad School?,” compares average grad student loan borrowing rates in 2004 to average grad student loan borrowing rates in 2012.

Not surprisingly, those borrowing rates have increased across the board for all graduate programs. That makes sense. Tuition prices have also increased dramatically in those eight years. Seems fairly innocuous until I figured out the percentages of increase for each of those programs.

By comparing borrowing rates across programs for the past eight years, I found an interesting new statistic about different graduate students’ willingness to borrow. The percentages of increase tell another–even more amazing–story for those of us in the humanities.

As you can see from the chart, graduate students pursuing a Master of Arts degree raised their debt load by far more than students from any other graduate program: 35% versus the average of 17.9%. Hard to believe, considering these degrees notoriously leave graduates with no defined career track and often require additional school or training before leading to jobs.

And students pursuing the graduate degrees that actually lead to gainful employment post-graduation increased their borrowing rates by the lowest percentages. Business administration students and Master of Science students both kept their increase under 10%.

Why are MA students now so much more likely to assume crazy amounts of debt in order to obtain their degrees? Who knows. I can only speak from my own experience as a holder of one of those MAs in English.

I borrowed $19,000 in student loans and another $8000 on a credit card to get my master’s degree. It was an incredibly stupid idea. I could have easily cash-flowed my degree if I had just gone a bit slower and been less willing to take on debt.

Part of the problem was a kind of naive idealism with which I and many of my fellow humanists are plagued. We have a tendency to ignore red flags and hope for the best. I managed to convince myself that my new degree would lead to a steady job after graduation and that I could pay my debt back in no time.

Three years later, I still haven’t found that steady job, whatever that means. I have managed to piece together an income from many different places, and I’ve gotten my debt down to $12,000 from the $27,000 I started with after graduation. Still a long way to go. If I had known how much it would suck to have this debt hanging over me (and how much interest I would pay), I would never have borrowed the money.

I can’t even imagine what it’s like to start with the average Master of Arts student’s debt load of $43,000. It would be crippling. Especially for graduates with no career prospects other than adjuncting.

A student who begins with that much debt will pay $16,381 in interest over the life of the loan. That master’s degree will end up costing $59,381 when it’s all said and done. It damn well better be worth it, but it almost certainly isn’t.

Be smart people. Say no to dumb debt.


*With the exception of law, which is not represented here.

See Also: English Professors Are Among the Lowest Paid Professors

GradPay: Crowdsourcing Graduate Student Working Conditions

GradPay Graduate Student Stipends By State

Median Stipend by State: Reds indicate high stipends, blues low stipends; black indicates missing data.

Over the past few years, a slew of articles have warned would-be academics away from graduate school, arguing that graduate students are overworked, underpaid, and underemployed once they complete their studies. Other commentators have passionately defended graduate education, dismissing such concerns as overblown. This debate highlights the dearth of information about graduate student well-being.

Certainly, some graduate students struggle to make ends meet, and others live relatively comfortable lives. But, at the moment, it’s hard to know how much money a typical graduate student is paid, or how much work she does. There’s also little information about differences in working conditions across departments: my limited personal experience suggests that students in the natural sciences earn more than students in the humanities, but there is little hard evidence to back up intuitions like this.

To address these questions, I recently launched GradPay, a survey of graduate student working conditions. The project is inspired by the Adjunct Project, but focuses on graduate students rather than adjunct faculty.

The survey asks Master’s and Ph.D. students about the work they do, the stipends they earn, and the health benefits they receive (if any). Some results are available on the site now; many new analyses will be added in the coming months. The results are available in real time on the project site, but I’ve highlighted some of the most interesting findings here.

Although the survey has only been available since early in the year, the results have already started to shed light on graduate working conditions. Out of a total of 1,670 doctoral student respondents, the median annual stipend was $21,000. Respondents also reported working as teaching assistants for a median of 50% of their terms in school.

Nearly all doctoral students received a stipend of some kind: less than 3% of respondents reported a stipend of less than $10,000, and just 1.3% reported that they received no stipend at all. Over 15% of respondents reported that they worked as a teaching assistant every semester; 6.3% of respondents indicated that they were never required to teach. Over one-fourth of respondents reported taking out loans to support their graduate education.

Altogether, the typical graduate student is paid less than half of the average starting salary of a college graduate. Because the typical Ph.D. program takes at least five years to complete, choosing graduate school may entail taking a big financial penalty in the short term.

Factors Affecting Graduate Student Stipends

Stipends also varied widely across states, institutions, and departments. Doctoral students in Kansas reported the lowest stipends, at $12,875; Connecticutensians earned the highest median stipend of $27,500 (for a visual take on the geographic diversity of graduate stipends, check out the map visualization at the bottom of the post). At the institutional level, median stipends ranged from $11,580 at the University of Houston to $32,600 at Harvard. Last, at the disciplinary level, stipends varied from $12,000 in urban and regional planning to $30,000 in nuclear engineering.

Overall, the results of the GradPay survey paint a more complicated picture of graduate working conditions than one might expect. As warned by some commentators, some graduate students are in dire financial straits. Others, though, earn relatively respectable stipends and health benefits, and are rarely required to teach. The survey also reveals staggering differences across institutions and departments: [pq align=right]Students at the highest-paying university earned stipends over 180% more than stipends at the lowest-paying university.[/pq]

There’s still a lot of work to be done on the project. The results will become more accurate as more students complete the survey, and the website will become more informative as more analytics are added. If you want to get involved, you can forward the survey to graduate students, student advocacy groups, and university administrators: the address is Or, if you have suggestions for new directions for the project or want to start a collaboration, get in touch with me at


Written by Joshua Carp, a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan and the creator of GradPay. GradPay was inspired by the Adjunct Project