What is the average grad school debt in the U.S.?

The average debt for a grad student depends on the graduate degree, type of school, and other factors

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Here’s the average grad school debt students take on while pursuing master’s, doctorate, and professional degrees in different fields of study. (Shutterstock)

Although completing graduate school can significantly boost your earning potential, it often comes with a substantial price tag. Grad students only represent around 16% of college students, but they took out 47% of federal student loans in the 2020-21 academic year — $39 billion, according to the College Board.

The average MBA graduate has $50,150 in debt, while the average law school graduate has $129,290 in debt, according to National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) data from the 2015-16 academic year. Meanwhile, the average medical school debt for graduates is a whopping $223,060.

Keep reading to learn the average amount of debt students take on when completing a master’s, doctorate, or professional degree in different fields of study, and some ways you can manage grad school debt.

If you’re looking to get a better interest rate and terms for your graduate student loans, visit Credible to compare student loan refinance rates from various lenders.

What’s the average grad school debt by degree?

The type of graduate degree you pursue has a huge impact on the amount of debt you may have to take on. 

Here’s the average amount of money students borrowed to earn the following degrees, according to NCES data from the 2015-16 academic year (the most recent data available):

  • Postbaccalaureate certificate: $54,090
  • Master’s degree: $50,290
  • Research doctorate: $101,490
  • Professional degree (includes law and medicine): $171,670

Master’s degree debt by area of study

The amount of debt you take on as a graduate student also depends on the field of study you choose. 

Here’s the average amount of debt students racked up while pursuing master’s degrees in various fields, according to NCES data:

  • Master’s of education: $41,750
  • Master of science (MS): $47,950
  • Master of business administration (MBA): $50,150
  • Master of arts (MA): $52,920

Doctoral degree debt by area of study 

A doctorate degree is usually the most expensive type of graduate degree to pursue, due to the length of the program. But the cost varies by your area of study. 

Here’s the average amount of debt students took on to complete doctorate degrees in the following programs, according to NCES data:

  • Ph.D. (non-education): $96,750
  • Education (any doctorate): $101,730
  • Medicine (M.D., D.O.): $223,060
  • Other health-related fields: $190,310
  • Law (LL.B. or J.D.): $129,290
  • Other (non-Ph.D.): $115,510

Graduate school debt by type of school

In addition to your area of study and degree type, the type of school you attend — whether it’s a public school, a private nonprofit school, or a private for-profit school — can also influence the amount of debt you take on as a graduate student

Here’s how much debt the average grad student had based on the type of graduate degree they received and the type of school they attended, according to NCES data: 

Postbaccalaureate certificate: $54,090 (all school types)

  • Public: $50,130
  • Private nonprofit: $43,270
  • Private for-profit: $61,300

Master’s degree: $50,290 (all school types)

  • Public: $42,330
  • Private nonprofit: $56,350
  • Private for-profit: $62,010

Research doctorate: $101,490 (all school types)

  • Public: $84,820
  • Private nonprofit: $89,430
  • Private for-profit: $144,890

Professional degree (including law and medicine): $171,670 (all school types)

  • Public: $130,750
  • Private nonprofit: $205,050
  • Private for-profit: $167,380

What are the current trends in graduate school borrowing?

Over the past two decades, there’s been a sharp rise in the amount of debt graduate students take on. 

Here’s how much the average grad school debt has increased from 1999-2000 for students who graduated in 2015-16, according to NCES data:

  • Master’s (all): +114%
  • MBA: +80% 
  • Law school: +150% 
  • Medical school: +184%
  • Research doctorate: +193%  

Average time to earn a doctorate degree

If you’re pursuing a doctorate degree, you’ll typically take on more debt than students who are pursuing master’s degrees, since doctoral students spend more time in school. While a master’s degree typically takes two years to complete in the U.S., doctoral degree programs require a longer time commitment. A full-time law school program normally takes three years to complete, but students can take six years or longer to complete a doctorate degree in other fields of study.

Here’s a look at the average time it took to complete various doctorate programs in 2019, according to the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics:

  • Physical and earth sciences: 6.3 years
  • Engineering: 6.8 years
  • Life sciences: 6.9 years
  • Math and computer sciences: 6.9 years
  • Humanities and arts: 9.5 years
  • Education: 11.9 years

Credible makes it easy to compare student loan refinance rates from multiple lenders, all in one place.

Earning potential for grad students

Although you’ll typically take on higher levels of student loan debt as a grad student, earning a graduate degree can significantly boost your earning potential, which can help you repay your student loans faster.

For example, the median annual income for a bachelor’s degree holder is $67,860, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). By contrast, the median annual income for a master’s degree holder is $80,340 — a difference of more than 18%. Meanwhile, professional degree holders have a median annual income that’s more than 45% higher than graduates who hold only bachelor’s degrees.

Here’s the median annual income for full-time and salaried workers who are 25 or older by their level of education, according to BLS data:

  • Less than a high school diploma: $32,188
  • High school diploma: $40,612
  • Some college, no degree: $45,604
  • Associate degree: $48,776
  • Bachelor’s degree: $67,860
  • Master’s degree: $80,340
  • Professional degree: $98,436
  • Doctoral degree: $98,020

Unemployment rates for graduate degree holders

Graduate degree holders typically have lower unemployment rates than their colleagues who don’t have a graduate degree. 

The 2020 unemployment rate for bachelor’s degree holders was 5.5%, according to BLS data. By contrast, the unemployment rate for master’s degree holders was just 4.1%.

The 2020 unemployment rates by education level were:

  • Less than a high school diploma: 11.7%
  • High school diploma: 9%
  • Some college, no degree: 8.3%
  • Associate degree: 7.1%
  • Bachelor’s degree: 5.5%
  • Master’s degree: 4.1%
  • Professional degree: 3.1%
  • Doctoral degree: 2.5%

Current interest rates on graduate student loans

Graduate students pay higher interest rates on federal student loans than undergrads. 

Here are the federal student loan interest rates for the 2021-22 academic year, according to the Federal Student Aid website:

  • Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized Loans (undergrads): 3.73%
  • Direct Unsubsidized Loans (grad students): 5.28%
  • Direct PLUS Loans (grad student and parents of undergrads): 6.28%

It’s important to note that most federal student loans are in federal forbearance, meaning payments are paused and the current interest rate is 0% through Aug. 31, 2022.

Grad PLUS Loans

If you’re a law school or medical school student, you tend to borrow more student loans, so you’re at greater risk of hitting federal loan limits. As a result, you may be more likely to take on higher-interest PLUS Loans than graduate students who are pursuing other fields of study. These loans can help cover any gaps in your education expenses.

The total loan limit for Direct Unsubsidized and Subsidized Loans for grad students for the 2021-22 academic school year is $138,500, and the limit for PLUS Loans is the cost of attendance (minus any financial aid you receive)

Here’s the percentage of grad students who took out federal loans by degree type during the 2017-18 academic year, according to NCES data:

  • Master’s degree: While 41.2% took out loans, only 7.4% took out PLUS Loans.
  • Research doctorate: While 27% took out loans, only 7.3% of those were PLUS Loans.
  • Doctorate in a professional field like law or medicine: Just under 71% used loans to help pay for school, and 43% took out PLUS Loans.

How to manage grad school debt

If you’ve taken out loans to pay for grad school, it may feel like you’ll never pay them off, especially if you owe as much as $100,000 in student loans. But the good news is that you can make your loans more manageable in several ways:

  • Take advantage of student aid. The first thing you can do is minimize the amount of debt you take on. You can do this by applying for as many scholarships, grants, and federal assistance programs as possible. For example, you may qualify for the Federal Work-Study Program. This program is designed to help students with financial need find part-time jobs on or off campus that are relevant to their field of study (when possible) or serve the public good.
  • Ask about employer tuition assistance programs. Once you graduate and find a job, ask your employer if it’ll help you pay for graduate school. Some employers offer tuition assistance or tuition reimbursement. Your current employer may even offer tuition reimbursement while you’re still in school.
  • Switch to an income-driven repayment plan, if possible. If you have federal loans, you may qualify for an income-driven repayment (IDR) plan, which bases your loan payments on your income and family size, or a federal loan forgiveness program like Public Service Loan Forgiveness.
  • Refinance your private student loans. Private loans don’t come with access to income-driven repayment plans or loan forgiveness programs, but if your finances and credit have improved since taking out a loan, refinancing could help you lower your monthly payment. This means replacing your loan with a new one that typically has a lower interest rate and better terms.

With Credible, you can compare student loan refinance rates from multiple lenders in minutes.

Taking on graduate student loan debt

Grad school enrollment increased over 23% from 2004 to 2019, according to NCES data. Along with this rise in enrollment, more graduate students are taking on debt — and the total outstanding debt among grad students has skyrocketed.

The number of grad students taking out Grad PLUS Loans has increased from 1 million in the first quarter of 2015 to 1.5 million in the first quarter of 2021. During this same time period, the amount borrowed in Grad PLUS Loans students increased by a staggering amount — over $40 billion.

While these are huge numbers, the earning potential for those with graduate degrees is promising, and federal relief has paused repayment of student loans for the time being. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by grad school debt, remember that you have options to manage your student loans.