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The $40,000 Tax on Black Scientists

Whether or not you agree with the Biden Administration’s college debt forgiveness ambitions, most can appreciate the role that carrying such debt plays in determining career paths. New analysis of government data reveals the disproportionate amount of debt being carried by Black scientists, shedding additional light on why this group remains severely underrepresented in scientific professions, including the professoriate. This trend is bad for Black communities and bad for science. 

Over the last year, we’ve been exploring the educational experiences of Black and Hispanic PhDs in STEM, and find that of the 184,000 PhDs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields awarded to individuals between 2010-2020, just 3.8 percent went to Black Americans. And yet this very small group of individuals are carrying a large share of federal student loan debt. Dr. Lorelle EspinosaDr. Lorelle Espinosa

Data show that roughly 50 percent of all Black PhD holders (in any discipline) borrow $50,000 or more for their graduate degrees—that’s in addition to debt at the undergraduate level, which is already disproportionately high for Black students. The next largest percentage belongs to Hispanic PhDs at 24 percent. The percentage of White PhD holders who have more than $50,000 in graduate debt is only 15 percent. And while the number of Black STEM PhD holders is too small to examine separately, we know that a staggering 81 percent of Black or Hispanic students who received their PhD in a STEM field borrowed more than $40,000 in federal loans during graduate study. Only 6 percent of White scientists borrowed that much.

For many, such levels of debt are unfathomable. Like nearly everyone in my doctoral program, I received a research assistantship, covering my tuition and paying a modest hourly salary. But I went to a university where faculty bring in grants large enough to fund their students. Indeed, 73 percent of Hispanic and 77 percent of White PhD recipients received their degrees at one of the roughly 150 U.S. universities with the highest research activity. Only 53 percent of Black PhDs attended these institutions. 

Moreover, an astounding 24 percent of Black STEM PhD recipients earned their PhD at a for-profit college. Attendance at these institutions by other racial groups is in the low single digits. These schools are not only expensive, but their credentials hold limited value in the labor market, including at the nation’s top research institutions.

When Black PhD students do enroll in nonprofit research universities, they more often do so after first attaining a master’s degree. This is a costly endeavor since most master’s programs don’t offer strong financial support. For this and other reasons, time to degree for Black students is longer than for other groups, delaying their entry into the workforce and informing their career choices. 

These data demand a reconsideration of how the scientific community shapes and supports the educational trajectories of aspiring Black scientists. Why the educational experience for Black students is so fundamentally different than for others is complex and rooted in longstanding systemic racism both inside and outside of science. Solving for that equation, so to speak, is a difficult and long-term project. So difficult and long-term that I fear we turn away from finding and acting upon solutions that are right in front of us. Dr. Erin Dunlop VelezDr. Erin Dunlop Velez

For example, rethinking predominant pathways to doctoral education; reevaluating the way doctoral education is funded; and examining why the for-profit sector is so appealing to Black PhD seekers and using those learnings in nonprofit settings. The scientific community ought to be demanding that policymakers better resource Minority Serving Institutions and other nonprofit institutions that enroll the majority of Black students while also holding accountable institutions that drive up student debt. 

Every actor who contributes to the scientific enterprise needs to play a part in reversing these trends. Until we change the system and our role in perpetuating it, we are in effect taxing our nation’s talented Black students for pursuing the scientific careers that we know are so essential to their communities and to our collective health and prosperity. 

 Dr. Lorelle L. Espinosa is the Program Director at The Sloan Foundation

 Dr. Erin Dunlop Velez is Director of Education Research at RTI International


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