HomeLoanDebt-Ridden Graduates: The Financial Reality of Popular Graduate Programs

Debt-Ridden Graduates: The Financial Reality of Popular Graduate Programs

Risky Investment: Why Popular Graduate Programs May Leave You in Debt

In the pursuit of professional advancement and higher earning potential, many individuals embark on the journey of graduate school. However, this decision should not be taken lightly, as the financial implications can be significant. A recent report, “Think Hard: Your Graduate School’s Sector Matters,” by The HEA Group, sheds light on the concerning trend of graduates from certain popular programs being saddled with substantial debt that far exceeds their early career earnings.

The report delves into the financial outcomes of graduates from the five most popular master’s and doctoral programs in the United States: business administration, educational administration, registered nursing, social work, and teacher education. The findings reveal a stark disparity in debt levels and earning potential among graduates based on the type of institution they attended.

Master’s Programs: A Tale of Two Sectors

For four out of the five master’s programs examined, graduates from public universities emerged with the most favorable debt-to-earnings ratios. This means they owed the least amount of debt compared to their wages earned after graduation.

For instance, master’s in business administration (MBA) graduates from public universities owed an average of $42,246 but earned an average of $106,044 four years after graduation. Consequently, their debt represented only 39.8% of their income.

This pattern held for graduates of master’s programs in educational administration, nursing, and social work, with public universities consistently offering the most financially advantageous options.

The For-Profit Sector: A Cause for Concern

In contrast, graduates from for-profit institutions faced the most significant financial burdens. For almost all the analyzed master’s programs, those who attended for-profit schools had higher debt levels and lower wages than their public and private, non-profit counterparts.

The disparity was particularly pronounced in social work, where for-profit graduates owed nearly twice as much ($72,715) but earned less ($53,534) than those who completed the same program at a public university, where graduates borrowed $37,566 and earned $56,607, on average.

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Doctoral Programs: A Similar Trend

The findings for doctoral programs mirrored those of master’s programs. For-profit institutions consistently left graduates with the heaviest debt burdens and the lowest comparative earnings.

A striking example is the doctoral degree in clinical, counseling, or applied psychology. Graduates from for-profit institutions owed more than double ($175,109) on average what they earned ($87,136) four years after graduating, resulting in a debt-to-income ratio of 201%. In contrast, graduates from public programs had a ratio of 101.3%, and those from private, nonprofit universities had a ratio of 178.8%.

Implications for Prospective Students

The report’s findings underscore the importance of careful consideration and research when contemplating graduate studies. Students should adopt a “buyer beware” approach, thoroughly evaluating the financial implications of their chosen program and the type of institution they intend to attend.

As Itzkowitz, the report’s author, aptly states, “Students and taxpayers deserve better since both make such a hefty investment.” The unregulated nature of the graduate school sector necessitates vigilance on the part of prospective students.


While graduate degrees can undoubtedly enhance one’s career prospects, it is crucial to weigh the potential financial benefits against the substantial debt burden that may accompany them. Careful consideration of program costs, earning potential, and institutional type can help individuals make informed decisions that align with their financial goals and long-term career aspirations.

Ricardo Anderson
Ricardo Anderson
Ricardo is someone with whom you can ask and talk about finance and its importance in life. A part-time cook, enthusiast, and football player, he loves to read and write on the latest updates in finance.


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