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Crushing Student Loan Debt Is Hurting Women the Most

Paying back tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt is a universally horrific experience, but it's worse for women.
(Left) Photo by B&J/(Right) Photo by Jovo Jovanovic via Stocksy

As the price going to college has become simply unattainable, taking out student loans has become the norm. You and everyone else you know are in debt, and it sucks; sixty-eight percent of all students, nearly seven in 10, graduate with student loan debt. According to a new report by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), women are faring the worst.

The AAUW review found that women have to take out more student loans than men to pursue a degree: "44 percent of women enrolled in undergraduate programs take out loans compared to 39 percent of men." And women also graduate with more debt. On average, a woman with a bachelors degree will have $1,500 more in debt than a man.


Read more: The Wage Gap Is Real, and It's Costing Women $500,000

When race is accounted for, black students overall graduate with more debt on average than white students—and black women face the highest burden. Black women have $10,117 more in student loan debt than white men and $8,841 more in debt than white women. Black women also carry more debt than black men. "The typical black woman who graduated with a bachelor's degree in 2011-12 did so with about $29,000 in student loans while black men averaged $25,000 in student loans," according to the report.

In 2011-2012, over a third of black women who graduated with a bachelor's degree had more than $40,000 in student loans compared to 16 percent of Hispanic women, 10 percent of white women, and eight percent of Asian women. Overall, Asian students graduate with the lowest debt, according to the report, with an average of $11,000 dollars in student loans.

Women don't just face higher amounts of student loan debt because women are attending college at a higher rate than men. According to the report, 64 percent of student loan debt is held by women, which is a figure disproportionate to their enrollment level.

The report attributes this to several factors. The majority of students work while enrolled in school, and the gender pay gap could mean that women students, particularly women of color, are earning less and have to take out more loans and are less likely to make payments toward their loans while they're in school. And students of color typically have less financial support: "The typical white family has 16 times the accrued wealth of the typical black family in the United States," according to the report.


Over a third of black women who graduated with a bachelor's degree had more than $40,000 in student loans compared to 16 percent of Hispanic women, 10 percent of white women, and 8 percent of Asian women.

The report also notes that nontraditional students—like students who have children—are largely women or people of color. These students face the additional financial cost of childcare. For them, student loan debt at graduation is, on average, $26,600 versus $19,100 for students without children.

After graduation, women remain in debt longer than men, too. "This means that in addition to taking on larger initial loans, women also pay more on their loans during repayment as interest accrues," the report notes.

Black women and Latina women lag the furthest behind: "Black women and Hispanic women paid off only about 12 percent and 18 percent of their debt in that three-year period, respectively, compared to 33 percent and 60 percent of white and Asian women."

Again, the report suggests, the gender pay gap is an obvious factor preventing women, particularly women of color, from accessing the money need it to pay off their educational debt. The study found that a four-year degree yielded a 75 percent pay increase for men, while it only boosted women's earnings by 66 percent. Fighting to close the wage gap would go a long way toward making the opportunity cost of a college degree equal—and fighting to reduce the cost of tuition, or eliminate it entirely, would do us all one better.