Black, Hispanic STEM Ph.D. Grads Carry Disproportionate Amount of Student Debt: Report

A new report found that 81% of Black and Hispanic STEM Ph.D. recipients had over $40,000 in student loans, compared to just 6% of white students.
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Published on November 28, 2023
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  • Black and Hispanic STEM Ph.D. students take out significantly more in student loan debt than white students.
  • Black and Hispanic students are more likely to receive scholarships and grant aid, but they are less likely to participate in assistantships and fellowships.
  • The challenges Black and Hispanic students face could be the reason they're underrepresented in STEM fields.

Black and Hispanic students earning doctoral degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields take out much more in student loans than their white peers, according to a study released Monday.

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a nonprofit that makes grants for STEM research, commissioned the study to understand ways colleges and universities can better support Black and Hispanic STEM Ph.D. students. Black and Hispanic workers made up 9% and 8%, respectively, of the STEM workforce in 2021, according to Pew Research — but those numbers don't reflect our country's makeup.

The research, conducted by RTI International, seeks to help drive a STEM workforce with more Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) representation.

"Understanding the particular challenges Black STEM doctorate recipients face is an important first step to developing programs to better support them," Erin Dunlop Velez, RTI director of education research, said in a press release. "This kind of analysis will help institutions learn how to better support Black and Hispanic students and encourage pathways into STEM careers."

Almost 81% of Black and Hispanic STEM Ph.D. graduates took out over $40,000 in federal student loans for their graduate studies, compared to just 6% of white students. Most of the factors the researchers point to impact Black students specifically.

The research titled "Exploring the Educational Experiences of Black and Hispanic PhDs in STEM" found multiple reasons for the higher debt Black and Hispanic students take on and, in turn, why we see fewer of these students in the workforce.

More Black STEM Ph.D. Students Attend Private, For-Profit Schools

Private, for-profit colleges' primary goal is to make money — not educate. They attract nontraditional students with flexible schedules, which would appeal to the 33% of Black STEM Ph.D. students who cared for dependents while going to school, according to the study.

However, private, for-profit schools also cost more than nonprofit schools and generally have low graduation rates. Some for-profit schools have even been deemed "predatory" for taking advantage of students.

The study found that 24% of Black STEM Ph.D. graduates earned their degrees from private, for-profit institutions, compared to just 3% of Asian, Hispanic, and white students.

Black and Hispanic Students Get Fewer Assistantships and Fellowships

The study found that 99% of Black and Hispanic students received STEM scholarships and grants to help them pay for graduate study, compared to 76% of white students. However, 95% of white students participated in assistantships and fellowships, compared with 64% of Black and Hispanic students.

Assistantships and fellowships are other ways many graduate students pay for school. Not having these opportunities leaves Black Ph.D. students saddled with debt to make up the difference.

The study points to the high number of Black graduates who earned their degrees from for-profit schools, which usually have fewer assistantship and fellowship opportunities than nonprofit universities.

Black STEM Ph.D. Students Take Longer to Complete Their Degrees

The study found that 15% of Black STEM Ph.D. students took more than eight years to complete their degrees, compared to 8% of white students. Those disparities were much smaller in non-STEM fields.

Researchers said there are a few reasons that explain why Black STEM Ph.D. students take longer than their white peers.

First, Black students needed to work through their degree programs. Almost half of Black Ph.D. students supported themselves through their doctoral programs, compared to just 20% of white students.

The study also says that Black students are more likely to change their field of study between their bachelor's and graduate degrees. Researchers pointed to the lack of guidance and exposure Black students get to different fields of study. When students change their majors, they often need more credit hours to earn their degrees.

Black Ph.D. students were also more likely to care for a dependent during their doctoral program. Attending school while raising a child can contribute to not only less time to dedicate toward your degree but also more debt. According to an Institute for Women's Policy Research analysis, student-parents take on more debt than students without kids because of childcare costs.

"Taken together, this research indicates that significant work remains to be done in supporting Black and Hispanic STEM PhDs and encouraging additional students of color to earn doctorates in STEM," the study states.