Women’s Student Debt Crisis in the United States

Note: This page has been updated to reflect new data as of May 2018.

Right now about 44 million borrowers in the United States hold about $1.4 trillion in outstanding student loans. The scale of outstanding student loans and an increasing share of borrow­ers who fail to repay have made many Americans aware that student debt is a challenge for society and for individual borrowers. Yet despite the fact that women represented 56 percent of those enrolled in American colleges and universities in fall 2016, many people do not think of student debt as a women’s issue. This report reveals that women also take on larger student loans than do men. And because of the gender pay gap, they have less disposable income with which to repay their loans after graduation, requiring more time to pay back their student debt than do men. As a result, women hold nearly two-thirds of the outstanding student debt in the United States — almost $900 billion as of mid-2018.

A chart showing women's and men's student loan debt by degree type between 2008 and 2016

This report offers a broad overview of how student debt became a women’s issue. It aims to change the conversation around student debt so that it includes gender-based analysis and solutions. The analysis examines the experiences of women as a diverse population and presents statistics by race and ethnicity as well as other demographics. The report relies heavily on publicly available federal government survey data as well as published studies undertaken by academics and organizations researching the issue of student debt.

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A Women’s Issue

Once rarities who re­ceived a small fraction of college degrees when AAUW was founded in 1881, women now earn 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees from American col­leges and universities. Large increases in the representa­tion of racial and ethnic minorities in college enrollment have also occurred; between 1976 and 2016 the portion of enrolled college students who were not white more than doubled from 16 percent to 43 percent. However, this increased diversity within colleges and universities has occurred alongside the increased price of attendance. Though median household incomes in the United States have barely budged since 1976, the median price of college attendance has more than doubled. The gap between household incomes and the price of attendance is filled by student loans, which are readily available to almost all college students but also difficult to discharge in bankruptcy, meaning they are risky investments for some students who rely on them to attend college.

AAUW’s analysis of federal government data has found that women are more likely to take on debt (41 percent of female undergraduates took on debt in 2015–16 compared to 35 percent of male undergraduates). On average women take on more debt than men at almost every degree level and type, from associate degrees to doctoral degrees and across institution types. On average across degree levels women in college took on initial student loan balances that were about 14 percent greater than men’s in 2015–16. Upon completion of a bach­elor’s degree, women’s average accrued student debt is about $2,700 greater than men’s, and black women take on more student debt on average than do members of any other group.

pie charts comparing 1976 to 2016 college enrollment by race and gender

chart showing how price of college tuition has increased over time while median incomes have barely grown

The Big Payback

Following graduation, women repay their loans more slowly than do men, in part because of the gender pay gap. Women working full time with college degrees make 26 percent less than their male counterparts, though the gap is somewhat smaller immediately after college (18 percent one year after graduation and 20 percent four years after graduation). Lower pay means less income to devote to debt repayment.

In the time period between one and four years after graduation, men paid off an average of 38 percent of their outstanding debt, while women paid off 31 percent. The pace of repayment was particularly slow for black and Hispanic women, as well as for men in those groups. Difficulty repaying student loans is also reflected in default rates, which are higher for women than for men, and much higher for black and Hispanic borrowers than for white and Asian borrowers. Per­haps unsurprisingly, graduates still repaying loans four years after college are less likely than graduates without loan payments to be able to meet essential expenses, such as rent or mortgage payments, within the past year. 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 reported that they had been unable to meet essential expenses within the past year.

deeper in debt figure

deeper in debt

The Worst of Both Worlds

The struggles of college graduates with student debt can be significant, but students who leave college without completing their academic program are more than twice as likely as graduates to default on their student loans. While these borrowers may have debt amounts that are small in absolute terms, their precarious economic position without a certificate or degree to improve their prospects in the labor market means that they may be unable to repay those loans. More than half of student debt defaults are on loan amounts of less than $10,000.

For-Profit Institutions: An Expensive Alternative

Though they enroll a relatively small portion of American college students, for-profit institutions disproportionately enroll women, people of color, low-income students, and members and former members of the U.S. military. For-profit institutions use advertising and high-pressure recruitment tactics to woo students and their student aid and loan money, but debt outcomes for students at these institutions are particularly dismal. Even after account­ing for student demographics, for-profit institutions have low completion rates and high default rates — a matter of serious concern for student loan borrowers, researchers, and policymakers.

What Can We Do About Student Debt?

AAUW advocates safeguarding and expanding Pell Grants for low-income students, as well as providing nontraditional students the resources they need — on-campus child care, for example — to successfully complete college degrees. Solutions to the student debt problem should also include supporting income-driven repayment approaches that reflect borrowers’ realities. And our support for students should address the additional costs they face beyond tuition. Congress can also end the harmful causes of the gender pay gap by passing legislation like the Paycheck Fairness Act and the Pay Equity for All Act to aid in the economic security of women.

What can you do? Join AAUW, find a nearby AAUW branch or student organization, apply for an AAUW fellowship or grant, or sign up to become an AAUW Two-Minute Activist. You’ll receive opportunities to make your voice heard on issues affecting women and girls, including policies surrounding college affordability. You can also educate yourself with the latest research on the gender pay gap with The Simple Truth about the Gender Pay Gap.

What’s Your Number? Share Your Own Student Debt Story

Are you one of millions of Americans who currently have or previously had student debt? Help us spark conversation and put a face on the issue! Share your story with us through our online story bank, or join our social media campaign. Simply print out our flyer and write in the total student loan debt you graduated with or expect to graduate with. Then snap a photo of yourself holding the flyer. Tweet to @AAUW using #DeeperinDebt, and we will share your story!



college campus

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The Simple Truth about the Gender Pay Gap research report cover Spring 2017

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