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How Carolina Graduate Students Fund Their Education
and Why It Matters to All of Us

Diana Gómez
Diana Gómez

In a conference room high above the city of Bogota, Colombia, 12 people are gathered on a floor strewn with flowers and candles. All 12 have either lost a family member to political violence, or were themselves threatened or driven from their homes. UNC-Chapel Hill graduate student Diana Gómez leads them in using the bright orange, blue and yellow flowers and candles to create a mandala—an intricate circular design that is a spiritual and ritual symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism. The participants write the names of their lost loved ones in the midst of flowers and candles and ask themselves and their relatives for permission to explore the memories and emotions surrounding the loss they feel. This is all part of Gómez’s research.

Through the large windows, Gómez can see Monserrate, the city’s iconic mountain, rising high in the distance. Below, downtown Bogota is bustling. Just out of sight from the conference room window is La Plaza de Bolivar, the square where Gómez participated in many protests against a corrupt and violent political regime.

Gómez first came to the United States from her native Colombia in 2008 not only as a visiting scholar at Duke University, but also seeking safety from those who threatened her life. She started working on her PhD in anthropology at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2009. Gómez’s path is made possible by the Royster Society of Fellows, The Graduate School’s select interdisciplinary fellowship program. As a Royster Fellow, Gómez’s education is fully funded.

Emotions in Times of Political Violence: A conversation with Diana Gomez
Watch Gómez describe her human rights work in Colombia.

Her research is profoundly shaped by the experience of being the victim of political violence. Gómez became a target after speaking out publicly against the forced disappearance and murder of her father, Jaime Gómez. Gómez’s father had been working for a well-known leftist politician who was unpopular with the presidential administration. He disappeared in March 2006. One month later his body was found. Gómez says her family was grateful to find his remains. In forced disappearances, victims are kidnapped, and instead of being held for ransom, they simply never appear again. She has returned to Colombia multiple times to conduct the field research that forms the foundation of her dissertation—knowing she will become the object of intimidation and illegal surveillance each time she makes the trip. Gómez interviews families of the disappeared and other victims of government abuse and documents their experiences and healing processes.

While it is likely that Gómez would have continued to work with victims of violence in Colombia, graduate school has allowed her to devote most of her time to research and fieldwork that will not only benefit her, but many others and ultimately the nation’s democracy.

“The Royster Fellowship allowed me to do a PhD abroad in a moment when I had to be outside my country,” Gómez says. “For me, UNC has been a wonderful university because I have found many people that are working on topics related to my research, enriching my project. For me, it has been important to have these types of conversations.”

Because of her Royster Society funding, Gómez can concentrate fully on her research and not worry about how she will afford her education: The fellowship pays her tuition and her living expenses for five years. In return, Gómez teaches for three years during her time at UNC-Chapel Hill. Being a Royster Fellow means Gómez won’t have to take out loans to finance her degree, a fact that sets her apart from most of the nation’s graduate students.


Learn More:
Explore national statistics on graduate student borrowing in our new dynamic data charts.

Read More:
Dean Steve Matson explains how Carolina keeps graduate education affordable

Research from the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit policy research institute, shows that Americans are carrying $1.1 trillion in student debt, 40 percent of which comes from loans taken out for graduate and professional degrees. By graduation, the average U.S. master’s student who takes out student loans is carrying $50,200 in combined undergraduate and graduate student debt.i PhD students usually stay much longer in their programs than master’s degree students, so their debts are even higher. The average PhD student who borrows for his or her education takes on $69,800.ii

Research shows that leaving graduate school with a heavy burden of debt has life-changing consequences. The amount of student debt a graduate carries appears to influence the kinds of jobs graduates are willing to take. A 2011 study from researchers at the universities of California, Berkeley and Princeton shows college loan debt may reduce the likelihood graduates will take low-paying public-interest jobs.iii

Another recent study shows that people with higher student debt are less likely to start their own businesses.iv Further research indicates that student debt delays important life milestones, such as buying a house.v All of this has implications not only for individual people, but for the economy as a whole. For this reason, one of the federal government’s most important economic institutions, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, is keeping an eye on growing student debt.

“If we see unprecedented debt on the balance sheets as a result of education, what are the effects we expect to see?” asks Meta Brown, senior economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

“Increasingly older borrowers are holding student debt. Presumably that has something to do with longer time in school and larger bills as a result,” Brown says.


Seeing the high amount of graduate student borrowing makes one wonder why getting a graduate education costs what it does. One major factor is that in addition to tuition, student loans cover the cost of living without a significant source of income for several years. And when it comes to tuition, in general, schools charge more per semester for graduate education than for undergraduate. Sandra Hoeflich, associate dean at The Graduate School, says schools do this because it costs universities more to educate graduate students.

“The very nature of graduate education means it is resource intensive,” Hoeflich says. “For both master’s and doctoral students, faculty-to-student ratios must be low in the classroom, and doctoral education requires the one-to-one mentoring of a faculty member for many years.”

Hoeflich says that while this kind of instruction is costly, it’s also necessary.

“Such individualized and specialized education and training does not have assembly-line type efficiency, but that is what is needed to produce doctorally or master’s-prepared professionals,” says Hoeflich.

In addition, Hoeflich says many degrees require the school to provide the latest technological tools and resources, which are often costly.


The amount of debt graduate students take on varies greatly by degree and field. Master’s degree students and doctoral students in the humanities and social or behavioral sciences who borrow have the highest average burden of debt, while students in the life sciences and engineering, computer science or mathematics borrow less, on average.

National Median Cumulative Debt by Master’s Degree
Includes borrowing for undergraduate and graduate degrees.
*UNC-Chapel Hill figures include Master of Social Work, Master of Public Health, Master of Accounting and Master of Public Administration. National data include Master of Social Work, Master of Public Administration, Master of Fine Arts and others. National data from the New America Foundation.
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In many cases, degrees with lower earning potential, such as a master’s in education, leave students with some of the highest amounts of debt. This is because those students have less access to funding while they’re in school and lower salaries once they graduate.

“There is more funding for students of engineering and other technological areas, and higher paid positions also await graduates of those degree programs,” says Hoeflich. “Overall, it reflects societal views about the value of those degrees and professional roles.”

Matt Miller


Degree: PhD in Education,third-year
Funding: Funding in the School of Education is generally “piecemeal.” Last year, Miller found some funding through a research assistantship. It paid for his tuition and provided a small stipend. However, the funding he has found isn’t enough for him to live on, so Miller has to take out loans. He says when he graduates he’ll owe around $47,000 in student loans.

Background: Miller worked for 10 years as a special education teacher in the southeastern United States. He earned his master’s in education from Vanderbilt University in 2002 and came to UNC-Chapel Hill in 2013 to begin his PhD.

Research interest: Miller studies the intersection between mathematics teaching and special education. He’s researching how educators can teach math to students with disabilities and without in the same classroom.

Quote: “Generally math and special education teachers work in their own areas because they’re trained differently; but what I try to do is to get them to talk to each other.”

Master of education or teaching students receive the least amount of grant aid of all graduate degree programs, according to data from the Council of Graduate Schools. While 35 percent of all degree-seeking graduate students in the academic year 2011- 2012 received some kind of grant funding, only 5.4 percent of master of education or teaching students received such aid. vi

The inverse relationship between debt and earning potential is similar for PhD students in education. Like PhDs students in other fields, PhD students in education stay longer in their programs than master’s students, so they rack up even more debt. Still, their salaries are dwarfed by those of PhDs in other fields, such as economics or mathematics and computer science.

Anna Joyce


Degree: Master’s in Public Administration, first-year

Funding: Joyce has half her tuition paid for through a School of Government fellowship. But she is still taking out loans and working part-time at two different companies to finance her degree. She took out loans for her bachelor’s as well. Joyce says when she leaves Carolina, she’ll carry around $80,000 in student debt.

Background: Originally from Pilot Mountain, N.C., Joyce earned her bachelor’s degree in political science from North Carolina A&T State University. She worked for several nonprofits that support children with developmental disabilities before enrolling at Carolina to pursue her master’s degree.

Research interest: Joyce started her master’s with the intention of focusing on nonprofit leadership; however, she soon discovered she has a passion for studying local government and community development, especially in rural areas like her hometown.

Quote: “I want to give back, and this seems like the best way to do it. I’d rather turn that desire into a career than do something else, even if it means I’ll have less money.”

Matt Miller is in his third year of the PhD program at the School of Education at UNC-Chapel Hill. Like most graduate students in the School of Education, Miller is constantly on the lookout for funding opportunities that pop up throughout the year. This year, he found a way to pay for his tuition through a research assistantship. Still, Miller says when he graduates he’ll carry about $47,000 in graduate student debt.

“It definitely weighs heavily on my mind,” he says. But to Miller, the degree is worth the price tag.

“Earning my degree means I get to advocate for teachers who don’t have the time to do so for themselves, and for students who don’t have the opportunities to make their voices heard,” Miller says. “Having this degree allows me more skills, access and influence to help those who need it.”

Anna Joyce is another student taking out a daunting sum in student loans for a degree that isn’t usually associated with a large salary: a master’s in public administration. A first-year master’s student at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government, Joyce focuses on local government and community development. When she graduates, she wants to work in rural, economically disadvantaged areas where, Joyce says, she feels she can make the most difference.

“I’m not really concerned with making a lot of money. I definitely want to give back, and I think this would be the best way for me to do it,” Joyce says.

But Joyce is concerned about being able to pay off her student loans, which, including both her undergraduate and graduate degrees, will total around $80,000 when she leaves UNC-Chapel Hill. About a third of that debt comes from her undergraduate degree.

“My mom is a public school teacher, and my dad is a factory worker, so there wasn’t really any extra income to put toward saving for college,” Joyce says.

Joyce works 30 hours a week in addition to her full-time studies, and she earned a fellowship from the School of Government that pays half her tuition. The rest she finances through student loans, which she wants to start paying off as soon as possible.

“I will probably take the first job I’m offered because I need to start paying off my debt as soon as I get out. I can’t risk waiting around for the perfect job for months and months,” Joyce says. “But I still think it’s going to take me a really long time to pay off my debt, and living not very comfortably.”


At UNC-Chapel Hill, graduate students’ debt level also varies greatly by degree. But graduate students from the University leave school with much lower amounts of debt than their national counterparts. For example, in 2012 the average UNC-Chapel Hill master’s degree student in education who took out loans left school with about $26,500 in student debt. On the national scale, the average master’s degree student in education had about $51,000 in student debt—nearly double the UNC-Chapel Hill average.vii

Source: The Graduate School at UNC-Chapel Hill
Source: AAUDE database as of 9/9/14.
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Source: Economic Research Institute, January 2015

This trend holds true for virtually all of UNC-Chapel Hill’s master’s degree programs.

Being a Research I institution is a major reason why Carolina graduate students carry less debt than others. Research I institutions like Carolina receive greater amounts of federal dollars than other kinds of colleges and universities because of the extensive research they conduct. Federal funding and other grants for research mean Research I universities are able to fund graduate students in exchange for their work on research projects.

But even among Research I institutions, UNC-Chapel Hill is leading the way in affordability. One reason is that Carolina keeps its tuition lower than its peer institutions and lower than the national average—for undergraduate and graduate students.

Another reason for the lower debt levels is likely the lower cost of living in Chapel Hill. Funding goes further for graduate students at UNC-Chapel Hill than it does for students at other schools like the University of Michigan, the University of California at Berkeley or Los Angeles, or the University of Texas.

Funding is also an important part of keeping graduate student debt down at UNC-Chapel Hill. For example, in the fall semester of 2014, 81 percent of full-time, on-campus graduate students in programs within The Graduate School received stipends for their roles as research assistants, fellows or trainees.

Carlee Forbes


Degree: PhD in Art History, first year

Funding: Forbes’ Royster Fellowship covers her tuition, fees, health insurance and living expenses for five years. In exchange, Forbes will work as a teaching or research assistant for three years during her program.

Background: Forbes received her bachelor’s degrees in history and arts and humanities from Michigan State University and her master’s degree in art history from the University of Florida. She was recently part of the team that organized the exhibition and publication of Kongo across the Waters, featuring pieces from the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium, and U.S. collections.

Research: Forbes’s research focuses on Congolese art in the early 20th century. She uses changes in imagery to explore the relationship between Congolese artists and their patrons (colonial officials, missionaries or other Congolese). By looking at the Congolese artworks, Forbes analyzes Congolese comments on colonialism in a way that may not be recorded in other documents.

Quote: ”I think that my research is important because it looks at materials that have been somewhat on the periphery of past art history studies, and also because it contributes a parallel narrative to one that focuses solely on the atrocities of the Belgian colonial rule in Congo.”

In total, over $34.6 million in funding was given to 4,767 students in graduate programs within The Graduate School for that semester.

For many, receiving this kind of funding will determine whether they go to graduate school or not. Carlee Forbes is a first-year PhD student in the art history department. She graduated from her undergraduate program with about $35,000 in debt. After her father unexpectedly passed away, she paid her loans with his life insurance. Forbes says that if she hadn’t received funding for her graduate education, she wouldn’t have been able to attend graduate school.

“I didn’t quite realize how lucky I was to get funding for my master’s degree,” says Forbes, who completed her master’s degree at the University of Florida. She, like Gómez, is a Royster Fellow, which guarantees her funding during five years of her doctoral education.

Gómez, too, says she wouldn’t have been able to afford graduate education without her fellowship.

“Some people come to the U.S. for their education, and they can pay on their own because they are rich, or because they have loans from the Colombian government,” Gómez says. “But paying tuition and fees here for someone from a middle or lower class background is extremely difficult.”


Fellowships and other types of graduate funding are crucial in giving students such as Gómez the opportunity to study and conduct their research. Increasingly, private donors who support graduate student funding opportunities are vital to the work Carolina’s graduate students are doing in communities across the globe, from the streets of Bogota to math classrooms in North Carolina. For example, in fall semester 2014, The Graduate School supported 147 graduate students with more than $4.8 million dollars from private gifts and endowments.

As the model for funding of higher education changes, private support is increasingly critical to helping to reduce graduate student debt. Strapped state budgets across the country mean many public universities must find other ways to support students. While the state of North Carolina provides more support than other states, state support has decreased precipitously. Between 2008 and 2014, state funding for higher education dropped nearly 25 percent.viii Increased gifts from alumni and friends of UNC-Chapel Hill could ensure that even while the burden of debt grows in the nation overall, graduate students at Carolina can continue take on the important work to be done in the world, no matter their financial circumstances.

♦ Stories and videos by Jess Clark and Andrea Patiño Contreras, master’s degree candidates in the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication


  1. National Center for Education Statistics, Academic year 2011-2012, Table 14 (pdf)
  2. National Center for Education Statistics, Academic year 2011-2012, Table 14 (pdf)
  3. Jesse Rothstein and Cecila Elena Rouse, “Constrained after College: Student Loans and Early Career Occupational Choices,” Journal of Public Economics 95 (2011), No. 1-2: 149-63
  4. Brent W. Ambrose et al., “The Impact of Student Loan Debt on Small Business Formation,” Working paper, March 29, 2014
  5. Zachary Bleemer et al., “Household Formation within the Boomerang Generation,” Liberty Street Economics, Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Feb. 4, 2015
  6. Council of Graduate Schools, “Graduate Student Debt: Q&A,” June 24, 2014, page 2
  7. Jason Delisle, “The Graduate Student Debt Review,” New America Foundation, March 2014
  8. Michael Mitchell, Vincent Palacios and Michael Leachman, “States Are Still Funding Higher Education Below Pre-Recession Levels,” Center on budget and policy priorities, May 1, 2014
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