The Department of Education recently added new data to the College Scorecard, giving consumers insight into the average amount of debt students take on in completing different academic programs across the country. The numbers, while preliminary, highlight “one sector in particular with outsized debt: graduate school,” Kevin Carey, director of education policy at New America, writes in The New York Times. While the government caps the amount of federal loans students may borrow to complete their undergraduate degree, there exist no such limits for graduate school borrowers, who often take on debt to cover both tuition and living expenses.
Grad programs producing surprising debt levels
The graduate program borrowing revealed by the new scorecard data is notable not only for its volume but also for its incoherence. Ben Miller, the Center for American Progress’s vice president for postsecondary education, points out that, in many cases, the amount borrowed doesn’t appear to match program quality or the potential for a well-paying career.
“If graduate education was more of a market, you would expect to see the most prestigious programs near the top for student debt, and they aren’t,” he told Inside Higher Ed. Illustrating this point, Carey highlights the six-figure debt associated with some social work graduate programs—degrees unlikely to lead to lucrative careers.
Will data alone steer students well?
This irrational debt “matters because the assumed efficiency of the higher education market is the keystone of the Trump administration’s deregulatory agenda,” writes Carey. The administration contends that transparency will allow borrowers to consider the numbers when choosing a higher ed program and drive students toward higher-value offerings.
Doug Webber, an associate professor of economics at Temple University, isn’t so sure. Webber and other critics doubt that more information will be a sufficient substitute for regulating programs that allow students to borrow massive amounts of money without offering a return on investment. “We can provide all the information in the world, but is it actually going to get into the hands of the people who need it? And are they going to be able to effectively use that information?” he told Inside Higher Ed.
Carey echoes this assertion, writing that “there is little evidence” to suggest that data alone will work. “The Department of Education has been publishing college graduation rates for over a decade,” he says. “Students still enroll in programs with poor outcomes.”