Feature

Ask psychology ­graduate students about their greatest challenge and you're likely to hear a frequent refrain: their significant education debt.

As a recent study by APA found, the median anticipated final graduate debt load for current psychology students—excluding undergraduate debt—is $110,000. When broken down by subfield, students in health service provider fields had a median debt of $120,000, while those in research and other fields had $72,500. For students pursuing a PsyD, it's $160,000 (Training and Education in Professional Psychology, 2016).

The APA study also looked at debt among early career psychologists, those who graduated in the last 10 years. It found that the median total debt was $80,000, with health service providers averaging $95,000 in debt, and debt for researchers and those in other fields averaging $58,000. Psychologists who had earned PsyD degrees owed the most at $138,500.

Why is student debt such a problem now?

In recent years, federal support for graduate education has decreased significantly. For nearly 50 years, both undergraduate and graduate students were eligible for the Federal Direct Subsidized Loan Program. Under this program, the federal government pays loan interest while ­students are in school, during a grace period and during periods of deferment.

But that changed in 2012 with the passage of the Budget Control Act, which eliminated graduate students' ­eligibility for the subsidized loan program. As a result, the U.S. Department of Education no longer pays for the interest accumulated on the federal student loans that graduate students take out while they are still in school, six months after they graduate or during deferment. The change could cost a graduate student $5,000 to $15,000.

In addition, student-loan interest rates for graduate students are now higher than the rates charged to undergraduate students—meaning borrowing is more expensive for graduate students.

Adding to that concern is the fact that psychologists' average debt loads are nearly five times greater than the average debt of all research doctoral-­degree holders. Part of the reason for that difference may be that over the last two decades, more psychology graduate students are attending programs that offer little or no financial support for students.

What is APA doing about it?

In addition to conducting the survey to quantify psychology student debt and help define the problem, APA is supporting the Protecting Our Students by Terminating Graduate Rates that Add to Student Debt Act, also known as the POST GRAD Act. Championed by Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), and introduced at the urging of APA members, the legislation amends the Higher Education Act to allow graduate and professional students to be eligible to receive a Federal Direct Subsidized Loan.

APA will be advocating for other policies that support graduate study as part of the Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. First authorized in 1965, the act provides the framework for federal investment in post-secondary education. Among its provisions are need-based financial assistance in the form of student loans and grants, including the Pell Grant, Federal Direct Student Loans, Federal Work-Study, and the Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need Program. The act was last reauthorized in 2008. It currently supports approximately $133.8 billion in financial assistance for roughly 12.9 million students.

How is APA advocating for the need for this change?

APA members and staff have promoted this legislation on Capitol Hill through a series of visits, asking for support of the POST GRAD Act. The legislation has nearly 50 co-sponsors.

The prospect of increased debt creates real barriers for students considering graduate study. In its messaging, APA emphasizes that the need for psychologists remains high, with approximately 97 million people in the United States living in areas where there is less access to mental health services. In addition, APA says that psychologists' research findings are put to work to address problems in schools, businesses, health care, the environment and much more.

APA also emphasizes that excessive graduate student debt has a negative impact on our national economy. New studies have shown that student debt will have a ripple effect on many key components of the economy, including homeownership, small business creation, retirement security and career choices, with fewer students considering more low-paying but critically needed public service careers.

Where can I find out more?

For more insights on student debt, visit APA's "Affording and Repaying Grad School" toolkit at www.apa.org/apags/resources/affording-repaying.aspx. Also see the April 2016 Monitor article "Got debt?" Access the article through our digital edition at www.apa.org/monitor/digital.