Women are now the majority on college campuses across the United States—representing 56% of all students enrolled as of fall 2016. And according to a new report, they’re also shouldering the lion’s share of the nation’s student debt problem.
A report by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) found that on average, women hold $833 billion—or almost two-thirds—of the country’s $1.3-trillion student debt, compared to the $477 billion that men hold.
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Overall, after completing a bachelor’s degree, women’s average accrued student debt is about $1,500 greater than men’s. African American women take on more student debt than any other group of women, with an average of $30,000.
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What’s more, women take two years longer than men to pay off that debt—partly because of the gender pay gap.
The AAUW estimates that women make 20% less than men four years after graduating with bachelor’s degree. That pay discrepancy leaves women with less disposable income to use to pay back their loans, meaning that they take more time to pay back their student debt than men. In the time period between one and four years after graduation, men paid off an average of 38% of their outstanding debt, while women paid off 31%, according to the study.
“College degrees have been an important method for many americans to improve their financial stability and economic mobility—especially for women,” says Kevin Miller, a senior researcher at AAUW. “Women’s success in higher education is reducing the size of the gender pay gap, but student debt is making it harder for women to get the leg up that they need.”
About one-third of women experience financial difficulties, (like covering living expenses) while paying off their loans, compared to just one-fourth of men, according to the study. And a full 57% of African American women repaying student loans say they were unable to meet essential expenses within the past year.
To combat this issue, Anne Hedgepeth, a senior government relations manager at AAUW, suggests that colleges and universities should push for greater state and federal investments so fewer students need to take out loans.
She also recommends that Congress strengthen and expand the federal Pell Grant program.”We need to bolster existing financial aid so that future borrowers don’t find themselves in a similar situation as the women in our study,” she says.
Hedgepeth adds that access to on-campus child care is also crucial. The lack of convenient and affordable child care makes it hard for women who are also mothers to complete their degrees, she says.