Students Want More Grad-School Outcomes Transparency

Master’s and doctoral candidates are taking on extreme debt with incomplete information.

Graduate school is often considered a helpful step in furthering one’s career. Students pursue graduate degrees with the hopes of better job opportunities, promotions, and financial returns on their investment. Surely having those coveted letters on a résumé is worth the costs of obtaining them, right?

In fact, a recent survey by the left-leaning think tank Third Way reveals that many graduate students are given very little useful data as they pursue further education. Using information from 1,000 current or recent graduate students, the survey found that few graduates felt they had a solid understanding of what to expect as far as the cost of their program, completion and employment rates, or the amount of debt they could expect to graduate with. The goal of the study was to gain insight into how prospective students are educated on their chosen program, “from application through completion.” The ultimate conclusion was that “students want more transparency” and “for schools to be held accountable for poor outcomes.”

Loans to graduate students now make up nearly half of federal student-loan spending.Loans to graduate students now make up nearly half of federal student-loan spending, and graduate programs in general are a major time and financial commitment. It is thus obvious that prospective students should see graduate school as a decision not to be taken lightly, and it would be to students’ benefit to have institutions mirror their seriousness by ensuring that helpful and accurate data are at their disposal. Being well-educated about a program before enrolling could help ensure that students are pursuing only the further education that will be to their benefit (i.e., that will not be a financial burden from which they have no hope of recovering).

The majority of the survey’s questions centered around the amount of knowledge participants had about their graduate program and their perception of the trustworthiness of any information provided. For instance, only 53 percent of students felt they had “a lot” of information about their program, and a mere 49 percent felt they could trust the accuracy of said information. When asked about program completion rates, only 45 percent of students felt they had “a lot” of information, while 55 percent responded that they had “some,” “very little,” or “no information at all” regarding their program’s history of actually graduating students. Only 39 percent of respondents felt they could trust the information they received about completion rates “a lot.”

Students’ knowledge regarding previous matriculants’ post-graduation success was even lower, with knowledge about employment rates coming in at 37 percent, about projected earnings at 31 percent, and about the average level of debt upon graduation at 28 percent. These percentages represented those who felt they had received “a lot” of information. Similarly low levels of trust regarding these three topics were reported, as well.

Considering that many students pursue graduate education as a method of furthering their careers and increasing their earning potential, it would presumably be quite helpful to know what to expect regarding earnings and debt loads. However, of the students surveyed, only 22 percent said they had “a lot” of information about debt loads compared to earnings, while 28 percent had “very little” or “none at all.”

According to a 2023 report by the Education Data Initiative, the average debt held by graduates with a master’s degree is nearly $84,000, a figure that increases to nearly $126,000 for Ph.D. holders. If graduate students also maintain the average undergraduate debt load of just over $37k, they could be looking at a potential total debt of $121,000-$163,000. An article in USA Today concludes that “hundreds of colleges produce students who are worse off [financially] than when they started their master’s or professional degree.”

Colleges should prioritize the gathering (and sharing) of accurate and reliable data.Ultimately, the main theme of Third Way’s findings is an increased need for transparency regarding graduate-program data, specifically those concerning graduation and employment rates, income after graduation, and the ratio of debt to earnings. Over 90 percent of students surveyed “strongly” or “somewhat” support requiring institutions to share these numbers as a condition of receiving taxpayer funding.

It is definitely the responsibility of students to research and make educated decisions prior to pursuing graduate programs; however, it is also helpful to have data specific to each program, which can really only be provided by the universities themselves or the federal government using institutional numbers. The survey authors put it well: “As things stand today, students are making one of the biggest investments of their lives without data that assures a worthwhile investment.” Colleges and universities should take note and prioritize the gathering (and sharing) of accurate and reliable data to help prospective students better weigh their options when considering graduate programs.

Ashlynn Warta is the state reporter for the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.