Once again, women find themselves on unequal footing. This time, it’s student loan debt.
A recent report, Deeper in Debt: Women and Student Loans, by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), found that student loans are burdening women disproportionately. Women of color, low-income women, and female students who drop out before getting their degree suffered to an even greater extent.
What the numbers say
The statistics are sobering. There is more than $1.3 trillion in student loan debt. According to the report, women represented 56% of those enrolled in American colleges and universities in the fall 2016. But yet, women hold nearly two-thirds of the outstanding student debt in the United States.
When AAUW reviewed federal government data, they discovered that women are more likely to take on debt—44% of female undergraduates take out student loans in a year compared to 39% of male undergraduates. On average, women take on more debt than men at almost every degree level and type, from associate degrees to doctoral degrees, and across institution types.
The report also revealed, on average across degree levels, women in college take on initial student loan balances that are about 14% greater than men’s in a given year. Upon completion of a bachelor’s degree, women’s average accrued student debt is about $1,500 greater than men’s, and black women take on more student debt on average than do members of any other group.
Why, why, why?
There are a few reasons for the differences in student loan debt between men and women. The report looks at the contributing factors and the impact on women’s financial futures.
Truth is, the rewards of a college degree are not equal. Much is based on gender. Women with college degrees are paid about 25% less than men with degrees, according to AAUW. In fact, the gender pay gap is one of the primary reasons there is a significant loan repayment gap between men and women after graduation.
Men pay back their loans more quickly than do women because they have the means to do so.
The typical female college graduate takes about 21% longer (or 1.9 years longer) to pay back her student loans than it takes the typical male college graduate.
Challenges tougher for women of color
The study found a story even more discouraging for women of color. The pace of repayment was particularly slow for black and Hispanic women. Difficulty repaying student loans is also reflected in default rates, which are higher for women than for men, and much higher for black and Hispanic borrowers than for white and Asian borrowers.
Women of color are most likely to experience difficulties. Thirty four percent of all women and 57% of black women surveyed who were repaying student loans said they had been unable to meet essential expenses within the past year.
The proportions of students who graduated with no debt or with a large amount of debt vary by race and gender. Just over a third of black women who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 2011-12, walked home with more than $40,000 in student debt, compared to 16% of Hispanic women, 10% of white women, and 8% of Asian women. Black women take on the greatest average amount of student loan debt.
Without question, the student loan debt is onerous for women. AAUW is calling for the expansion of Pell Grants for low-income students and additional resources like on-campus child care that will help some women remain in college.