The $100,000 master’s degree?

The discussion on college debt seems to focus on extreme cases, and Six Figures in Debt for a Master’s Degree from Inside HigherEd pointed out several of these. While they did break down the averages by degree. It’s helpful to look at the type of institutions students attend and the programs of study. I’m personally interested in this analysis and started to explore the dataset and thought I’d share some of the first impressions.

Looking at the data from 2016–2017, the mean debt is following a log-normal distribution, so some care will need to be taken in making comparisons between the groups. Including proprietary schools may not be useful given the low number of programs, but the spread is similar to private institutions.


For all master’s degrees with reported data, the mean debt values are $52k, $44k, and $39k for private, proprietary, and public institutions, respectively. Looking at various programs, the number with student debt over $100,000 is low.

I am particularly interested in STEM fields associated with the Professional Science Master’s movement; however, a quick survey shows that many schools’ data is suppressed to maintain privacy. As a first pass, CIP descriptions aligned with keywords from the PSM programs of study were used to narrow the scope of the analysis, including:

  • Agricultural Science, Food Science, Nutrition
  • Biotechnology
  • Computational Science, Analytics, Big Data, Statistics
  • Environmental Science, Ocean Science, Sustainability, GIS
  • Physical Sciences, Chemical Sciences

Business Administration, Management and Operations shows a wide range and is included for comparison. Dietetics and Clinical Nutrition Services also shows a wide range of mean debt, but the remaining programs have more modest ranges.


These are preliminary numbers but would indicate most students are managing their graduate education debt responsibly.

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