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Directorate for Social, Behavioral
and Economic Sciences

NSF 99-341  April 16, 1999
by Alan I. Rapoport
Does the Educational Debt Burden of Science and Engineering Doctorates Differ by Race/Ethnicity and Sex?
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Underrepresented minority S&E Ph.D. recipients were more likely to be in debt and have higher levels of debt than either white or Asian doctorate recipients.






































In most S&E fields, women were less likely than men to be in debt and had smaller levels of debt after receiving their Ph.D.s.




An issue arising in discussions about government support for graduate education in science and engineering is student indebtedness. An earlier Issue Brief provided information about the debt owed by new doctorate recipients at the time of Ph.D. conferral for undergraduate and/or graduate education expenses for tuition and fees, living expenses and supplies, and transportation to and from school.[1] It highlighted differences in the debt situation of U.S. citizens and foreign Ph.D. recipients, and of science and engineering (S&E) Ph.D.s and doctorates in other (non S&E) fields. This Issue Brief extends the analysis of U.S. citizens by examining differences in debt burden among racial/ethnic groups and between men and women in S&E fields.[2]

Overall, just under 40 percent of U.S. Citizens who received their science and engineering (S&E)[3] Ph.D.s from 1993-96[4] reported having no debt at the time their degrees were conferred. Forty-two percent reported total debt burden of $20,000 or less (26 percent had debt up to $10,000, and 16 percent had debt between $10,000 and $20,000); 8 percent reported debt levels of $20,000 to $30,000; and another 8 percent had debts exceeding that amount.[5]

However, there are significant differences between the debt situations of Asian, white, and underrepresented minority (American Indian/Alaskan Native, black, or Hispanic) S&E Ph.D. recipients. Differences are also apparent between men and women.

Differences Among Racial/Ethnic Groups
A smaller percentage of underrepresented minorities were debt free compared to whites or Asians. Only 27 percent of underrepresented minority S&E Ph.D. recipients reported not having any debt, compared to 40 percent of whites and 45 percent of Asians in the 1993-96 period (figure 1). In addition, underrepresented minorities reported higher levels of debt than their white and Asian counterparts. Each of the four indebtedness ranges shown in figure 1 has a larger percentage of underrepresented minorities than either whites or Asians. For example, 10 percent of the underrepresented minority S&E Ph.D.s reported debt between $20,000 and $30,000, compared to 8 percent of whites and 6 percent of Asians; and 12 percent of underrepresented minorities reported debt greater than $30,000, compared to only 7 percent for both whites and Asians.

Figure 1. Cumulative debt related to the education of S&E doctorate recipients, by race/ethnicity and level of debt: 93-96

Since the field distribution of S&E Ph.D. degrees varies across racial/ethnic groups, and the extent and level of indebtedness also varies by field, one may believe that the differences reported above are primarily the result of field distribution differences.[6] But that is not the case. In each of the fields presented in table 1, including those in which underrepresented minorities were most likely to receive their Ph.D. degrees (psychology and the social sciences), a smaller percentage of underrepresented minorities reported not having any debt than either whites or Asians. In most of these fields the differences reported were substantial. In addition, in both of the debt ranges reported in the table, the percentage of underrepresented minorities reporting debt is always greater than the percentage of Asians or whites reporting debt. Differences between white and Asian S&E Ph.D. recipients are generally small compared to those between underrepresented minorities and these two groups, although Asians are generally less likely to have debt than whites.

Table 1. Cumulative debt related to the education of S&E doctorate recipients, by race/ethnicity and field: 93-96

Differences Between Women and Men
For all S&E Ph.D.s conferred to U.S. Citizens between 1993-96, there was little difference between the debt situations of men and women. Thirty-nine percent of each group reported having no debt. The debt burden of women appears to be slightly higher than that for men, with 17 percent of women reporting debt greater than $20,000 compared to 14 percent of men. Among the men, 43 percent reported debt less than $20,000 compared to 39 percent of the women (table 2).

Table 2. Cumulative debt related to the education of S&E doctorate recipients, by sex and field: 93-96

However, field-level data indicate that the aggregate findings mask substantial differences in the debt situation between male and female S&E Ph.D. recipients. A major reason that aggregate data show similarities in the debt situation of male and female S&E Ph.D. recipients is that about 30 percent of women's S&E Ph.D.s conferred in the 1993-96 period were in psychology compared to only 11 percent of the men's. Psychology as a field has the highest percent and levels for educational debt of all S&E fields.

In all but two of the fields presented in table 2-the computer sciences and the environmental (earth, atmospheric, and oceanographic) sciences-a larger proportion of women than men reported not having any debt. In a number of these fields, the differences are substantial. For instance, in the mathematical sciences, 57 percent of women Ph.D. recipients reported having no debt compared to 47 percent of the men; in the medical/health sciences, 50 percent versus 38 percent; and in psychology, 29 percent versus 22 percent for men. The apparent higher debt levels for women also seem to be primarily the result of aggregation (table 2).

In most fields a smaller percentage of women report debt exceeding $20,000 than men; only in the computer sciences does the percentage of women with debt above $20,000 exceed that of men, albeit by a small margin. In a number of fields-agricultural sciences, biological sciences, and medical/health sciences-the differences between the percentages of women and men reporting debt greater than $20,000 are substantial.

The source of data for this Issue Brief is the Survey of Earned Doctorates, an annual survey designed to obtain data on the number and characteristics of all individuals who receive research doctoral degrees from U.S. institutions, including information on indebtedness at the time of graduation for education-related expenses.

This Issue Brief was prepared by:

Alan I. Rapoport
Division of Science Resources Studies
National Science Foundation
4201 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 965
Arlington, VA 22230
703-306-1776 ext. 7208
E-mail: arapopor@nsf.gov

SRS data are available through the World Wide Web (http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/). For more information about obtaining reports, contact pubs@nsf.gov. or call (301) 947-2722. For NSF's Telephonic Device for the Deaf, dial (703) 306-0090. In your request, include the NSF publication number and title, your name, and a complete mailing address.


[1] See the Issue Brief "What is the Debt Burden of New Science and Engineering Ph.D.s?" National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Studies, NSF 98-318.

[2] The analysis excludes foreign Ph.D. recipients from U.S. universities.

[3] S&E includes the physical sciences, mathematical sciences, computer sciences, environmental (earth, atmospheric, and oceanographic) sciences, life sciences (including medical and health sciences), social sciences, psychology, and engineering.

[4] The choices that could be selected by respondents to characterize their debt positions have been identical since 1993. Changes were made in the survey in 1993 that do not permit comparisons of data from earlier surveys with data from the 1993-96 period. While 1997 data recently became available, this analysis focuses on the 1993-96 period to provide overlap with the previously cited Issue Brief on indebtedness.

[5] Some respondents failed to furnish this information.

[6] See Table 2 in "What is the Debt Burden of New Science and Engineering Ph.D.s?" National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Studies, NSF 98-318.

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