For Black STEM PhDs, the “D” Also Means Debt

December 4, 2023 | 9:56 am
black graduate with dollar sign on cap and gownBurlingham/Shutterstock
Derrick Z. Jackson

As hard as it is for Black students to earn advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) fields, a final insult accompanies the diploma. They leave school dragging a ball and chain of debt far heavier than that for most White graduates.

The latest evidence of this comes in a report last week by the Research Triangle Institute and the Sloan Foundation. It found that 49 percent of Black PhD graduates in STEM fields leave school with more than $50,000 in debt. That is more than triple the 15 percent of White PhD recipients who graduate with the same level of debt.

Meanwhile, 68 percent of White PhD graduates finish school with no debt at all, a luxury enjoyed only by 28 percent of Black counterparts.

Even more stark is the difference in federal loans borrowed for graduate education.

Among White PhD recipients, 79 percent took out no loans at all. Just 6 percent borrowed more than $40,000. It was the reverse for Black and Latino PhD graduates: 81 percent took out federal loans of more than $40,000. Put in the most dramatic terms, White PhD graduates were 13 times more likely than Black and Latinx graduates to avoid federal loan debts of more than $40,000 and six times more likely than Black and Latinx graduates to avoid any federal loans.

In an op-ed for Diverse Issues in Higher Education, report co-authors Erin Dunlop Velez and Lorelle Espinosa summed up the findings as “The $40,000 tax on Black Scientists.” They wrote that the data demands “a reconsideration of how the scientific community shapes and supports the educational trajectories of aspiring Black scientists,” including “reevaluating the way doctoral education is funded.”

STEM pathway already hard enough

Structural racism in STEM is already tough enough on the front end of undergraduate education. Last year, I highlighted a groundbreaking study that shattered conventional assumptions that poorer Black achievement in STEM is due to inferior K-12 education. That study found that even when students enter college with equal high school qualifications, universities foster an environment far more rewarding for White males than Black men or women.

White men with least a C in all first term STEM-related courses have nearly double the chance of graduating with an undergraduate STEM degree than Black women with the same grades. White males with at least one D or F, or withdrawal from an introductory core course still had a higher chance of graduating than Black students with no D’s, F’s, or withdrawals.

This RTI/Sloan report on what happens on the back end for PhD earners should equally end any pretense that Black and Brown students play on equal fields of opportunity compared to their White colleagues. Velez and Dunlop cite many reasons for the loan debt disparity, including the realities that:

  • Black and Latino PhD students are significantly less likely than White PhD students to receive fellowships, assistantships and employer assistance to defray school costs;
  • Black STEM PhDs are less likely to attend top-tier research institutions and more likely to attend lesser-ranked research institutions with less funding, or for-profit institutions, where, despite their cost, offer less fellowships;
  • Black STEM PhDs take longer to earn degrees. They often need to work, have other family obligations, or were unnecessarily guided or misguided into separate Masters-degree programs prior to pursuing a PhD by counselors who may not have thought the candidate capable of earning a doctorate.

One devastating bottom line of all this is that 48 percent of Black PhDs report that their primary source of funding support comes from their own coffers, in savings, loans or family support. That is more than double the 21 percent of White PhD earners who dip into family resources. In yet another reversal of data, 48 percent of White PhDs say their primary source of support comes from teaching and research assistantships—more than double the 21 percent of Black PhD earners with such support.

Debt diverts PhDs from academia and government

Unless those numbers are themselves reversed, Espinosa told Inside Higher Education that the ranks of university-based scientists will never become as diverse as the nation’s population. While African Americans and Latinos respectively make up 14 percent and 19 percent of the population, they only accounted for 5 percent and 8 percent of STEM PhD recipients in 2021.

Instead, she predicts that a disproportionate number of Black and Brown scientists will go into industry. “If you’re carrying debt, you’re going to want to go to a place where you can pay that debt off quickly and support your family … and that’s not academe,” she said.

Nor government science, which critically needs a diverse STEM workforce to tackle a world of problems that disproportionately afflict communities of color, including climate change, pollution, and public health. In a new report by my colleagues at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a key issue in diversifying the nation’s federal STEM workforce is closing the pay gap between government scientists and researchers in the private sector.

Overall, federal workers with professional degrees or doctorates earn 24 percent less than counterparts in the private sector. A National Science Foundation survey of doctorate recipients found that respective median salaries in the private sector, government and education were $142,000, $120,000, and $93,000. The UCS report said the government has to ask itself how to make its pay and/or benefits more lucrative and “grapple with a long history of lower pay for STEM professionals from historically excluded groups.”

The government knows quite well it must ask itself that question, especially for first generation STEM undergraduates from underrepresented groups. A 2021 White House report on STEM diversity said that when heavier debt loads force students to work to afford college, they “may miss out on professional growth opportunities accessible to more affluent students, such as unpaid research experience, professional meeting attendance, and summer academic experiences.”

Redressing the situation

Velez points to many layers of barriers leading to such high financial burdens for underrepresented PhD earners of color that deserve “a hard look,” including how those students are being advised at the undergraduate level. In her email to me, she said universities should analyze why so many of those students end up at for-profit institutions. For me, the systemic racism embedded in financing a graduate degree cries out for some level of reparation in the form of loan forgiveness, even as such programs are highly controversial for undergraduates.

Faculty and administrators of graduate programs should take a hard look at equity in their programs,” Velez says “Are they more likely to advise them into a master’s program because they don’t believe they can complete a PhD? Do they see that students of color are less likely to receive assistantships and fellowships at their institution? Do they see that students of color are taking on more debt than White students?.”

In the effort to diversify the STEM world, there are a handful of notable ongoing efforts to support Black and Brown students in the classroom. The University of Maryland Baltimore County and Historically Black Colleges and Universities North Carolina A&T, Howard, Spelman, Florida A&M all have produced more than 100 STEM PhD recipients from 2010 to 2020.

The University of Puerto Rico’s Mayaguez and Rio Piedras campuses, the University of Texas El Paso, the University of Florida, and Florida International University have each produced more than 200 Hispanic PhDs in the same decade. Predominantly White Institutions such as Northeastern University are nationally known for their near-full undergraduate retention of Black and Latinx STEM students and a 90 percent graduation rate.

Such efforts toward equaling the playing field of STEM studies must now be met with a full commitment to equity at graduation. It is no way to inspire diversity among doctorates in STEM when the diploma confers financial bondage.

About the author

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Derrick Z. Jackson is a UCS Fellow in climate and energy and the Center for Science and Democracy. Formerly of the Boston Globe and Newsday, Jackson is a Pulitzer Prize and National Headliners finalist, a 2021 Scripps Howard opinion winner, and a respective 11-time, 4-time and 2-time winner from the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, and the Education Writers Association.