Graduating from college is a major achievement, but for many college-educated women in the US, finally paying off student loans is just as monumental.
A research report released today by The American Association of University Women (AAUW) called “Deeper in Debt: Women and Student Loans,” presents glaring evidence that women are shouldering an alarming amount of student debt in this country.
The organization estimates that because there are more women enrolled in colleges and universities than men (56% in fall 2016), they take out bigger “initial loans” and because they tend to pay them back slower than men (somewhat because of the gender pay gap), women have 64% of the loan debt in the country.
They compared this to the amount of “outstanding student debt” the New York Federal Reserve estimated at the end of 2016—$1.31 trillion overall— and calculated that women are responsible for paying back $833 billion, compared to men, who they estimate hold $477 billion.
Kevin Miller, Ph.D., the senior researcher for AAUW who authored the report, noted that women are bearing a heavy financial burden.
“It’s encouraging that women are enrolling in college more than ever before, but at the same time they are taking on larger amounts of debt to pay for their dreams…Because of factors like the gender pay gap, debt that could be manageable ends up becoming unmanageable, particularly for women,” Miller said.
A variety of factors have rendered women responsible for paying off significantly more loan debt than men.
Why women are faced with so much debt
Of the report‘s many findings, here were a few others that stood out.
Researchers found that in a year, 44% of female undergraduate students take out loans, versus 39% of male undergrads.
The also researchers found that after graduating with a bachelor’s degree, women had about $1,500 more in student debt on average then men, with black women having the most “of any other group” on average.
The report said that “men are somewhat more likely” to enroll in public schools than women, but women continue to accrue more debt when they also attend them—the gender pay gap plays a role. It’s about as common for women to work during their undergraduate years than men, but women who do so at that time earn approximately $1,500 less every year than men who do so then.
The report said that women don’t pay off their loans as quickly as men after graduating, somewhat because of the gender pay gap. Full-time, female employees who have degrees take home 26% less than men in that position, but women take home 18% of what men do one year following graduation and 20% of what men do four years out.
In a chilling quote, the report showed just how many minority women are having a tough time staying afloat: “ Women—especially women of color—are most likely to experience difficulties. 34 percent of all women and 57 percent of black women who were repaying student loans reporting that they had been unable to meet essential expenses within the past year.”
Sarah Goldrick-Rab, Ph. D., a panelist featured during today’s livestreamed discussion about the report, writes about making a more affordable American education system, and has published research on college students dealing with homelessness, food insecurity and hunger.
“I want to emphasize that a lot of the struggles that I’m writing about are no longer only the struggles of people with the least amount of money who are in college. These are now the struggles of the middle class as well,” Goldrick-Rab said.
Student debt through the eyes of one woman
One graduate talked about her relationship with a harrowing amount of student debt on a media call about the report.
Khallilah Beecham-Watkins is a parent to a four-month-old baby girl with her husband. She said she’s currently saddled with about $74,000 worth student loan debt after four years of undergraduate education and one year of graduate school.
As first-generation student, she said she had a lot of “emotional support” from her family, specifically her mom, but even with that encouragement, the “financial support wasn’t necessarily” in place then.
Beecham-Watkins chose to leave her graduate program because of the hefty cost of attendance and how much debt she was continuing to rack up.
She put buying a home “on hold” and said she had to make “the difficult decision to stay home with my daughter because of high childcare costs.”
How to fix it
The report included suggestions for public policy, including: “protect Pell grants and ensure that they work for all students,” “support repayment approaches that reflect borrowers’ realities,” “fight to eliminate the pay gap,” and “address additional costs students face beyond tuition.”
Suggestions for institutions included: “provide accurate financial aid information and guidance” and “support nontraditional students.”
The twist, of course, is that there aren’t many solutions to the problem being discussed right now.