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New study finds startling cost disparities between public, for-profit colleges among popular post-graduate programs

December 6, 2023 

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New study finds startling cost disparities between public, for-profit colleges among popular post-graduate programs 

Student Defense and The HEA Group today released a new study, Think Hard: Your Graduate School’s Sector Matters, which found wide program cost disparities among popular post-graduate degree programs between for-profit and public & non-profit schools. 

The report analyzes debt-to-earnings ratios for graduates of the five most popular master’s and doctoral programs awarded in the United States and finds that for-profit programs often leave students with more debt relative to their post-graduation income. Students with a higher ratio may have a harder time making progress towards paying down their loans.

“Advanced degrees offer substantial benefits for many program graduates, including specialized knowledge, higher earnings, and the ability to advance within a given career path at a quicker pace. However, certain institutions are more expensive and leave students earning less—drowning graduates in debt well beyond their earnings potential,” the study says. 

The study found the largest disparity among master’s degrees was for social work programs, where for-profit programs left students with a 136% debt-to-earnings ratio after graduation on average, while public university programs resulted in a much-lower 66% debt-to-earnings ratio. Among doctoral programs, students who graduated from clinical, counseling and applied psychology saw the highest disparity in their debt-to-earnings ratios — 201% among for-profit graduates compared to a 101% ratio for public university students.

“Graduate school can be costly, so it’s important for students to make a well-informed decision about both their field of study and their school,” said Student Defense President Aaron Ament. “In a perfect world, every institution would be focused on providing students with a quality, affordable education and not on padding their own bottom line. Unfortunately, we know that’s not always the case. 

“Right now, graduate schools remain the most unregulated segment of higher education,” said HEA Group President Michael Itzkowitz. “These programs often serve as the cash cows for institutions across the United States, yet there’s nothing stopping certain schools or certain sectors from leaving students with suboptimal earnings and unmanageable debt. Students and taxpayers deserve better since both make such a hefty investment."

Shoddy and deceptive graduate school programs—especially for-profit programs—are a growing driver of America’s higher education crisis. An earlier report from Student Defense and The HEA Group found that approximately a third of American graduate schools analyzed leave their students owing more in student loans than they originally borrowed, with large for-profit institutions topping the list of offenders.

A full copy of the report can be found here