Professional degree holders have the highest debt

Recently much was made of total student debt reaching $1 trillion. Although sensational, the number is not terribly meaningful unless it is accompanied by information about how many borrowers there are, what the median debt total is, how the debt is distributed, and so on. I’ve gone over that before; so I wont repeat it here. One thing worth noting however is that these aggregate numbers include all student debt, not just undergraduate student debt.

Those seeking professional degrees — law, medicine, and business — take on much higher debt than undergraduate students. According to a 2009 study, professional students take on an average debt of $87,308 just for their professional degrees. When combined with their undergraduate degrees, professional students take on an average debt of $98,711. Both of these figures have doubtlessly risen in the past three years.

I imagine most do not think society should be handing future doctors, future lawyers, and future business executives around $100,000 to avoid these debts. These students typically make more than enough money to pay off the debts, and society could use that $100,000 in a better way. This leads me back to my point about the usefulness of balance sheet accounting for student debt. We do not generally consider the debt professional students undertake to be tragic and unfair precisely because we know that the debt is being used to acquire educational assets that are far more valuable than the cost of the debt.

But this is just as true for undergraduate students. Professional students enjoy a $2.4 million lifetime wage premium over those with only high school degrees, while undergraduate students enjoy a nearly $1 million lifetime wage premium. If you do not consider professional students sympathetic targets for cash transfers, then you probably should not find undergraduate students sympathetic targets either.

Even if we think undergraduates are somehow different, we should at least change the way we represent total student debt. Any tallies of total student debt that include professional students are necessarily problematic if these are not the students we have in mind. Including the relatively high debt of professional students into these data sets doubtlessly runs totals and averages way up.