Women made up 56 percent of higher education enrollment in the United States in fall 2016 but hold nearly two-thirds of the country’s $1.3 trillion in outstanding student loan debt, according to a report released Wednesday by the American Association of University Women (AAUW).
Relying heavily on public government data and academic studies, AAUW sought to expand the conversation about student loan debt and its disproportionate impact on women — demonstrating how college debt became a women’s issue.
The report, titled Deeper in Debt: Women and Student Loans, reveals that although median household incomes in the U.S. have remained fairly stagnate since the late 1970s, the median cost of postsecondary education has more than doubled. This gap, the authors say, leads more students to take out risky loans. Women, however, borrow more money than men for nearly every degree level and type, as well as across all institution types. Specifically, the study found that 44 percent of female undergraduates take out loans in a year compared to 39 percent of men.
On average, women take on student loan balances approximately 14 percent higher than men’s in a given year, and African American women tend to accrue more student loan debt than members of any other racial or ethnic group, according to the report.
In addition to acquiring about $1,500 more in debt than male students, women tend to pay off their student loans at a slower pace, which the authors of the study attribute in part to the gender pay gap. The report shows that female professionals with a college degree make 26 percent less than their male counterparts, and in the first three years following graduation, men repaid an average of 38 percent of their student loan debt, while women only paid off 31 percent during the same timeframe. However, African American and Hispanic women struggle the most to repay their student loans, according to the report. This issue is highlighted by default rates, with women defaulting more than men and black and Hispanic graduates defaulting more than whites and Asians.
In light of the report’s findings, AAUW is recommending even more policies and programming to assist students with paying for college, such as expanding the Pell Grant program and providing more resources for nontraditional students, like on-campus child care. Additionally, the association advocates for legislation aimed at diminishing the gender pay gap.