Debt for Master of Arts Degree Increases by Double the National Average

What on earth could possess a person to borrow $43,000 for a Master of Arts degree? There is no possible way that could be a good idea. Financially speaking, an MA is worth little, if anything, more than a bachelor’s degree. Borrowing $43,000 for a Master of Arts degree is insane.

This $43,000 figure comes from a piece by Jordan Weissmann over at Slate in which he breaks down recent findings from the New America Foundation on the student loan borrowing habits of graduate students.¬†Weissmann’s piece is accompanied by some nifty graphics that illustrate graduate student borrowing trends and percentages of federal student loan disbursements.

My favorite graphic from the piece, entitled “How Much Do Students Borrow During Grad School?,” compares average grad student loan borrowing rates in 2004 to average grad student loan borrowing rates in 2012.

Not surprisingly, those borrowing rates have increased across the board for all graduate programs. That makes sense. Tuition prices have also increased dramatically in those eight years. Seems fairly innocuous until I figured out the percentages of increase for each of those programs.

By comparing borrowing rates across programs for the past eight years, I found an interesting new statistic about different graduate students’ willingness to borrow. The percentages of increase tell another–even more amazing–story for those of us in the humanities.

Percentage Increase of Grad Student Borrowing by Program (2004-2012)

As you can see from the chart, graduate students pursuing a Master of Arts degree raised their debt load by far more than students from any other graduate program.*

[pq]Master of Arts students increased their willingness to assume debt by double the average for all other programs.[/pq]: 35% versus the average of 17.9%. Hard to believe, considering these degrees notoriously leave graduates with no defined career track and often require additional school or training before leading to jobs.

And students pursuing the graduate degrees that actually lead to gainful employment post-graduation increased their borrowing rates by the lowest percentages. Business administration students and Master of Science students both kept their increase under 10%.

Why are MA students now so much more likely to assume crazy amounts of debt in order to obtain their degrees? Who knows. I can only speak from my own experience as a holder of one of those MAs in English.

I borrowed $19,000 in student loans and another $8000 on a credit card to get my master’s degree. It was an incredibly stupid idea. I could have easily cash-flowed my degree if I had just gone a bit slower and been less willing to take on debt.

Part of the problem was a kind of naive idealism with which I and many of my fellow humanists are plagued. We have a tendency to ignore red flags and hope for the best. I managed to convince myself that my new degree would lead to a steady job after graduation and that I could pay my debt back in no time.

Three years later, I still haven’t found that steady job, whatever that means. I have managed to piece together an income from many different places, and I’ve gotten my debt down to $12,000 from the $27,000 I started with after graduation. Still a long way to go. If I had known how much it would suck to have this debt hanging over me (and how much interest I would pay), I would never have borrowed the money.

I can’t even imagine what it’s like to start with the average Master of Arts student’s debt load of $43,000. It would be crippling. Especially for graduates with no career prospects other than adjuncting.

A student who begins with that much debt will pay $16,381 in interest over the life of the loan. That master’s degree will end up costing $59,381 when it’s all said and done. It damn well better be worth it, but it almost certainly isn’t.

Be smart people. Say no to dumb debt.


*With the exception of law, which is not represented here.

See Also: English Professors Are Among the Lowest Paid Professors