A Look at Federal Student Loan Borrowing by Field of Study

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Federal Student Aid has slowly been releasing interesting new data on federal student loans over the last few years. In previous posts, I have highlighted data on the types of borrowers who use income-driven repayment plans and average federal student loan balances by state. But one section of Federal Student Aid’s website that gets less attention than the student loan portfolio page (where I pulled data from for the previous posts) is the Title IV program volume reports page. For years, this page—which is updated quarterly with current data—has been a useful source of how many students at each college receive federal grants and loans.

While pulling the latest data on Pell Grant and student loan volumes by college last week, I noticed three new spreadsheets on the page that contained interesting statistics from the 2015-16 academic year. One spreadsheet shows grant and loan disbursements by age group, while a second spreadsheet shows the same information by state. But in this blog post, I look at a third spreadsheet of student loan disbursements by students’ fields of study. The original spreadsheet contained data on the number of recipients and the amount of loans disbursed, and I added a third column of per-student annual average loans by dividing the two columns. This revised spreadsheet can be downloaded here.

Of the 1,310 distinct fields of study included in the spreadsheet, 14 of them included more than $1 billion of student loans in 2015-16 and made up over $36 billion of the $94 billion in disbursed loans. Business majors made up 600,000 of the 9.1 million borrowers, taking out $6.1 billion in loans, with nursing majors having the second most borrowers and loans. The majors with the third and fourth largest loan disbursements were law and medicine, fields that tend to be almost exclusively graduate students and can thus borrow up to the full cost of attendance without the need for Parent PLUS loans. As a result, both of these fields took out more loans than general studies majors in spite of being far fewer in numbers. On the other end (not shown here), the ten students majoring in hematology technology/technician drew out a combined $28,477 in loans, just ahead of the 14 students in explosive ordinance/bomb disposal programs who hopefully are not blowing up over incurring a total of $61,069 in debt.

Turning next to programs where per-student annual borrowing is the highest, the top ten list is completely dominated by health sciences programs (the first two-digit CIP not from health sciences is international business, trade, and tax law at #16). It is pretty remarkable that dentists take on $71,451 of student loans each year while advanced general dentists (all 51 of them!) borrow even more than that. Given that dental school is four years long and that interest accumulates during school, an average debt burden of private dental school graduates of $341,190 seems quite reasonable. Toss in income-driven repayment during additional training and it makes sense that at least one of the 101 people with $1 million in federal student loan debt is an orthodontist. On the low end of average debt, the 164 bartending majors ran up an average tab of $2,963 in student loans in 2015-16 while the 144 personal awareness and self-improvement majors are well into their 12-step plan to repay their average of $4,361 in loans.

Author: Robert

I am an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. All opinions are my own.

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