Student loans: 'Revolutionary' new data shows average debt of recent graduates by degree

Amid a major student loan debt crisis in the U.S., a new report by the Texas Public Policy Foundation found that some degrees cost tens of thousands of dollars more than others. 

The report — which uses new data released by the Department of Education (ED)'s College Scorecard to examine typical college debt by credential and program — contributes to a burgeoning trend of transparency that's aimed at scrutinizing the cost of tuition generally.

The analysis "is really quite revolutionary because up until now, everything had just been institution level," Andrew Gillen, senior policy analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, told Yahoo Finance.

Rather than generalize how much student loan debt one would take out if they go to a college, Gillen noted, students can extrapolate how much their intended major would set them back, which is "helpful."

Gillen said he hoped that the report will help students and parents make more informed decisions and prompt policymakers to take a closer look at whether these programs provide a good return on students' investment.

Ultimately, he wants there to be more of an understanding in government "about what they're funding in higher education and why [degree-specific information] would really benefit the higher education landscape."

The most and least expensive degrees

Overall, graduates with associate's degrees borrowed an average of $14,000, as compared to bachelor's degree grads who borrowed $23,000.

Then there are master's degrees, of which the costs have been a large focus of the conversation around the price of higher education in recent months. Master's degree holders borrowed a median of $40,000, according to the data, while professional degree recipients took out a median of $144,000 while doctoral degree graduates borrowed a median of $73,000, according to the data.

"The one pattern that really did jump out at me … is that the student debt for a master's degree and for professional degrees is just off the charts," Gillen said. "There's really, really high debt for graduate programs. That doesn't always hold for doctoral programs, which I felt was kind of interesting."

Professional degrees — a credential required for students to become medical doctors, veterinarians, and lawyers — are defined by ED as "an award that requires completion of a program that meets the following criteria: (1) completion of the academic requirements to begin practice in the profession; (2) at least 2 years of college work prior to entering the program; and (3) a total of at least 6 academic years of college work to complete the degree program, including prior required college work plus the length of the professional program itself."

The associate's degree with the lowest level of median debt was in Mechatronics, Robotics, and Automation Engineering at $6,500, followed by Biology Technician/Biotechnology Laboratory Technician at $7,200. (Associates degrees are popular with community colleges.)

An associate's degree in "Rehabilitation and Therapeutic Professions" would put a student in $19,000 of student loan debt at the median, according to Gillen's report, while the same discipline at the bachelor's degree level would set them back by $26,000, by $53,000 at the master's degree level, and by an eye-popping $108,000 at the professional degree level.

Similarly, a degree in "Alternative and Complementary Medicine and Medical Systems" translated into $35,000 of median debt for an associate's degree and about $38,000 for a bachelor's degree but $112,000 for a master's and $230,000 for a professional degree.

The bachelor's degree with the lowest level of debt was International and Comparative Education at $10,000, followed by Real Estate Development at $14,000, and Operations Research at $15,971.

The master's degrees with the lowest levels of median debt for students were International Agriculture at $15,317; Architectural Engineering at $16,279; and Romance Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics at $19,480.

Median student loan debt

Here is the median student loan debt for common degrees many students may be considering:

Business Administration, Management and Operations

Associate's degree: $17,569
Bachelor's degree: $23,250
Master's degree: $40,855
Doctoral degree: $77,239


Associate's degree: $8,944
Bachelor's degree: $21,500
Master's degree: $36,185
Doctoral degree: Data not available.

Political Science and Government

Associate's degree: $10,284
Bachelor's degree: $21,500
Master's degree: $41,000
Doctoral degree: Data not available.


Associate's degree: $14,060
Bachelor's degree: $22,750
Master's degree: $41,000
Doctoral degree: Data not available.

Registered Nursing, Nursing Administration, Nursing Research and Clinical Nursing

Associate's degree: $16,559
Bachelor's degree: $21,679
Master's degree: $45,006
Professional degree: $76,126
Doctoral degree: $68,120

Communication, Journalism, and Related Programs, Other

Associate's degree: $15,753
Bachelor's degree: $24,233
Master's degree: $58,586
Doctoral degree: Data not available.

Aarthi is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. She can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @aarthiswami.

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