If You’re Worried About Debt, This Is the Master’s Degree to Avoid

Early career earnings for graduates from elite universities often fail to keep up with federal student loans

Statue of Alma Mater at Columbia University, New York. Graduate film students there are facing student loan debts that far outweigh their initial post-graduate earnings.
Graduates of Columbia University's film program are faced with huge student loan debts
Jianhaoguan / iStock / Getty Images Plus

If your parents warned you about going to film school … they were on to something.

According to a Wall Street Journal analysis of Education Department data, film alumni at New York’s Columbia University had the highest debt compared with earnings among graduates of any major university master’s program in the U.S. Those who took out federal student loans had a median debt of $181,000 — although that figure only covers earnings and loan repayments up to two years after graduation.

One issue might be with the university itself. Columbia is nation’s eighth wealthiest private school, with an $11.3 billion endowment — and yet doesn’t seem to be doing enough to help its graduates. While keeping tuition mostly flat for undergraduates and offering extensive financial aid for low-income students, the university has raised rates for its various master’s programs.

“There’s always those 2 a.m. panic attacks where you’re thinking, ‘How the hell am I ever going to pay this off?’,” as 29-year-old Zack Morrison, a Master of Fine Arts in film from Columbia in 2018, told the Journal. According to the paper, his loan balance stands at nearly $300,000, including accrued interest. But he’s only earning between $30,000 and $50,000 a year from work as a Hollywood assistant while also doing side gigs.

The high figures of the loans are partially due to a quirk in the federal Grad PLUS program, where there is no fixed limit on how much grad students can borrow. The interest rate on that loan is currently fixed at 6.28%.

Other findings:

  • Publishing students at New York University borrowed a median $116,000 but only had an annual median income of $42,000 two years after the program.
  • Grad students in 14 of Columbia’s 32 master degree programs who borrowed money held loans that exceeded annual earnings two years after graduation.
  • In relatively good news, a chart of seven Ivy League universities showed that a majority of students had income exceeding debt after two years, particularly for graduates of Yale, Harvard and Cornell.

Still, Columbia seems to be a big outlier within that group. And while the administration only offered up vague promises for financial help in the article, some Columbia faculty members are acutely aware of the student loan issue. As Christian Parker, a Columbia theater department faculty member and former department chair, noted: “I’ve never been to an all-school faculty meeting where it wasn’t brought up and where faculty were not advocating and agitating for this issue to remain at the front of the list of priorities for the dean’s leadership.”

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