Women owe two-thirds of student loan debt. This points to a slow-burning crisis

Women owe two-thirds of student loan debt. This points to a slow-burning crisis
Women are borrowing more to ‘get ahead’ on the career ladder, only to find their futures constrained by the shackles of debt
By Michelle Chen
Jun 21 2017

By many measures, women have leapt ahead of their male peers in higher education. Today they have higher college enrollment and graduate at higher rates, and on many campuses, women’s and gender studies programs have mushroomed on campuses nationwide. But women’s educational advancement hasn’t come cheap.

The hidden cost of academic gender parity, according to a new analysis by the American Association of University Women, is a disproportionate student debt burden; women are borrowing more to “get ahead” on the career ladder, only to find their futures constrained by the shackles of debt. 

Women carry roughly two thirds of the country’s $1.3tn student debt load – altogether that’s about $833bn for women, compared to $477bn for men. The reasons for higher debt are varied, but the trends of financial hardship reveal how the new sexism problem on campus might not be so much outright discrimination but a slow-burning crisis of eroding economic opportunity once they enter the workforce.

Graduating with a cloud of debt hanging over your head not only means you start your life in a financial hole, it also makes it increasingly difficult over time to achieve economic stability, buy a home, start a family or save for retirement. Debt limits people’s choices of where to live, even when to get married. And for women especially, the illusion of finally getting on a “level playing field” with men ends up masking hidden hardships that disproportionately hold women back.

On paper, the gap may seem fairly small; the average cumulative debt owed by women with bachelor’s degrees was about $20,900 in 2012 versus nearly $19,500 for men. But across all degree levels, the year-to-year financial burden is crushing: women face an estimated 14% higher debt burden in a given year than comparably educated men. So within about four years of graduating, women generally lag farther behind men on their college debt repayments. 

About a third of women with student debt reported they had trouble covering their basic living expenses over the past year due to their student loan burden. When race is factored in, women of color fare even worse, with about four in ten Latinas and six in ten black women saying they’ve struggled to cover the essentials and juggle monthly debt payments.

Women’s debt inequity is compounded by the gender pay gap; college-educated women working full-time earn 26% less than their male peers – and the gap widens over time. 

The reasons for the income inequality vary, from job discrimination, to interrupting work due to childbirth. Whatever the cause, as the researchers explain: “When you combine higher debt with lower incomes after graduation, you get a recipe for financial hardship.”

Even with a degree, the debt burden can make it impossibly hard to navigate other challenges, from pursuing further graduate education, start saving for a future home or your own business, or leave an abusive relationship.



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