America’s student loan debt burden has reached a staggering $1.44 trillion, making it the second largest source of household debt in America – behind mortgages. According to a recent study, this growing loan burden is not equally shared between the sexes.
The report from the American Association of University Women (AAUW), titled “Deeper in Debt: Women and Student Loans,” found that, as of fall 2016, women made up 56% of enrollees in America’s colleges and universities but they accounted for almost two-thirds of aggregate student debt.
The problem is evident at both ends of the collegiate experience.
On average, women are more likely to take out student loans and to incur a larger debt in completing a bachelor’s degree. Almost 44% of female undergraduates utilize student loans. Only 39% of male students take out loans, and women rack up an average student loan debt $1,500 greater than their male counterparts do.
Once they graduate and enter the workforce, women earn less pay on average than men do. Thanks in large part to greater debt and a lower salary, it takes women approximately two years longer to pay off their student loan debt. Within four years after graduation, men had paid off 38% of their debt on average, compared to 31% for women.
The gap in pay actually gets worse over time. The report found that for full-time workers with college degrees, the pay gap between men and women is less within the first year after graduation (18%) than it is at the four-year mark (20%). Over all ages, the discrepancy rises to 26%.
African-American women with student loans face an even greater burden. With an average student loan debt of $30,000, the highest of any group reported in the study, 57% of African-American women with student loans reported an inability to meet essential expenses over the past twelve months.
The AAUW report supports previous research from ORC International, showing that 42% of women have over $30,000 in student loan debt, compared to 27% of men. In the same study, women are two times more likely than men to think that it would take at least twenty years to pay off their student loans completely. The ORC study also noted that, compared to men, women are less likely to continue with their current employer because of their financial situations.
Help for women with student loan debt does not appear imminent. While we may be working toward gender equality in pay, we are doing so very slowly. A separate AAUW analysis of U.S. Census data suggests that women will not see equal pay until the year 2152 – a ray of hope for our great-granddaughters, but not much help for the women of today.
The combined AAUW studies show that women are likely to hold a disproportionate share of student loan debt for years to come, so it is even more important for today’s female collegians (and those of the near future) to look at their college education with an eye towards a return on investment.
While the AAUW report highlights the need for policymakers to assist in removing the need for student loans and devising alternate repayment methods, as a female student, it’s up to you to assess whether your degree will be worth the money you borrow in order to pay for it. Do your homework on post-graduation options, make the connections you need to leverage your degree into the best job possible, and be confident that you will receive value for the money that you spend.
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