New data from the National Science Foundation (NSF) on U.S. graduate student debt provide fresh evidence of racial disparities in the training of Black Ph.D. students in science—and hint at how they might affect careers.
One set of numbers shows that by the time they finish, Black doctoral recipients in the natural sciences and engineering have racked up nearly twice the graduate school debt of their white, Asian, and Latino peers. Another set shows Black Ph.D.s are less likely than white, Asian, and Latino Ph.D. students to receive two desirable sources of support—a research grant or traineeship. Black Ph.D.s are also more likely to use their own resources to pay for their graduate studies.
The new numbers come from NSF’s 2020 Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED) sent to 55,283 students (including 3095 Black students) at 449 universities who earned a research-related Ph.D. from July 2019 to June 2020. The survey doesn’t speculate on the reasons for the disparities. But some researchers think those differences reflect broader racial inequities in U.S. higher education.
When asked about how much debt they had accumulated, newly minted Black Ph.D.s in the natural sciences and engineering reported a mean debt of $82,253, compared with $47,425 for white graduates, $44,150 for Latino graduates, and $41,197 for graduates of Asian descent. And the gap is widening: From 2015 to 2020, the mean debt of Black students grew by 51%, compared with increases of 24% for white students, 18% for Asian students, and 16% for Latino students.
NSF also asked Ph.D. recipients how they paid for tuition, rent, and other expenses. The answers reflect the range of funding mechanisms available to Ph.D. students, including grants, teaching assistantships, fellowships, and even funding from employers. But Black students were less likely than their white, Asian, and Latino counterparts to receive two kinds of funding: from a faculty member’s research grant, or from a traineeship program. Those mechanisms often provide an ideal entry into the type of cutting-edge research that can lead to publications, visibility, and professional networking opportunities.
In the life sciences, 21% of Black graduates reported a research assistantship or traineeship as their primary source of support, compared with 35% for white students and those of Asian descent and 28% for Latino students. The gap was wider in math and computer science, with 36% of Asians and 28% of white students holding research assistantships compared with only 13% of Black students and 21% of Latinos.
There is little research on how debt affects the careers of Ph.D. recipients in the sciences. But sizable debt can push students “to follow the money rather than their passion,” says sociologist Jason Houle of Dartmouth College, who has studied how undergraduate student debt affects social mobility.
The disparity in support type could be the product of the decentralized nature of graduate education, in which departments or faculty members holding grants often decide who gets research slots. “I would be very surprised to find any explicit discriminatory policies,” says education researcher Julie Posselt of the University of Southern California. “But whenever there are resources to be allocated, there are opportunities for racial bias. And I think it’s reasonable to assume that they would follow the same patterns that affect all of U.S. higher education.”
For instance, Posselt says, decision-makers can favor students “like themselves,” which could create obstacles for students who are Black or from other groups underrepresented in science. Basing awards on a student’s research experience or standardized test scores, which have been shown to put Black students at a disadvantage, could also play a role.
“Graduate education is at the end of a long pipeline at which there is discrimination at every level,” says sociologist Jaymes Pyne, a research associate at Stanford University and co-author of a 2020 paper that found debt deters students of color from obtaining an advanced degree. “So, the selection process [for research assistantships and traineeships] is important. I’d like to be a fly on the wall when departments make those decisions.”
The SED data show Black Ph.D. recipients were more likely to self-fund at least part of their studies. In the life sciences, 34% of Black Ph.D.s reported relying primarily on their “own resources,” compared with 14% of white and Latino students and 10% of Asian students. Some students who self-financed likely took loans that can take years to repay.
For Black students unfamiliar with how graduate education operates, the challenge of securing adequate financial support can be one more barrier to entry into the profession. “I grew up with family members who were professors, so I only applied to graduate programs that promised to fully fund their students,” says Dominique Baker, an education policy professor at Southern Methodist University. “But I’m definitely an outlier among Black academics.”