Women and Student Loan Debt by the Numbers: Why It’s Concerning to Experts

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There’s a direct correlation between higher education and higher salaries; but, for millions of Americans, the dream of college is attainable only through the nightmare of student debt. The country’s 45 million student borrowers owe a collective $1.7 trillion, according to Forbes.

For women, the financial burden of education is especially high.

Related: 2 Major Ways Student Debt Burden Is Robbing Women of Their Freedom
Also See: 3 Alarming Ways Women Are Lagging Behind Men When It Comes to Their Finances

GOBankingRates surveyed more than 1,000 women from all over the country about their experiences with student debt, and the results show that gender has a lot to do with what you can expect to pay for the privilege of higher education. 

For Women, Caps and Tassels Come With 5-Figure Debt

According to a report from the American Association of University Women (AAUW), “Student debt is making it nearly impossible for many women to afford their basic living expenses after graduating from college.”

When you look at the numbers, it’s not hard to understand why.

About one in four women who responded to the GOBankingRates survey — 24.33% — don’t have any student debt. Nearly all who do, however, are buried under five- and even six-figure loans that will follow them for years or decades to come. Here’s how it breaks down:

  • Under $10,000: 6.68%
  • $10,001-$30,000: 15.65%
  • $30,001-$50,000: 28.51%
  • $50,001-$70,000: 9.07%
  • $70,001-$100,000: 8.18%
  • Over $100,000: 7.58%
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When It Comes to Student Debt, the Gender Gap Is More Like a Canyon

Women hold two-thirds of America’s student loan debt, according to the AAUW report. But, when they graduate, they can expect to earn just 74% of what their male counterparts will make. The report showed that the average woman exists on a razor-thin budget after graduation even if she’s not among the 16% who have children. When you factor in the exorbitant cost of child care, the average woman’s monthly budget runs at a deficit, making more debt inevitable and saving for things like retirement almost impossible.

According to the Education Data Initiative (EDI), it takes women an average of two years longer to pay off their student loans than men despite making higher payments with 26% less income.

Whether Bias Is Built Into the System or Not, the End Result Is Inequality

One year after graduation, women owe about 10% more than men, according to EDI — but not all women struggle equally. Black women owe an average of 13% more than they borrowed after 12 years in repayment. In that same time span, the average white woman’s student debt shrinks by 28% while the average white man’s debt shrinks by 44%.

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“The data supports a systemic gender bias,” said Mary Jo Lambert-Terry, managing partner at Yrefy. “Societal gender norm construction — which often leaves women responsible for child-rearing and household management — has made it harder for women to obtain degrees in the same amount of time as men, and the cost of education continues to rise.

“This leaves women with a longer path to get their degree and more money owed. Not to mention many women are being paid less than their male co-workers, especially in male-dominated fields, and women are still more likely to earn degrees in fields that earn less, like social work or K-12 education, making it more challenging for them to pay down their loans.”

More Women Are Going to College — With Less Help From Home

Educational dynamics in the United States are rapidly changing in favor of women — but the parents of female learners are more likely to help pay their sons’ way than their daughters’.

“In the United States right now, women outnumber men on college campuses and in terms of graduation rates,” said Melanie Hanson, editor in chief of EDI Refinance. “Despite their gains on campus, many women get less financial support from their families than their male peers.”

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The EDI study, for example, found that “parents of male students are more likely to take out loans on their behalf.”

Even when women do receive equal support from family, it’s almost inevitable that they’ll have a harder time keeping up with their repayment schedule if they decide to have children.

“After graduation, women face the source of most of the gender wage gap: childbearing,” Hanson said. “Until women leave the workforce to have children, their earnings are largely on par with their male peers, but women who come back to work after maternity leave find their earnings falling behind, never to recover.”

Learn: How Gen Z Women Can Achieve Financial Independence

For Women, Student Debt Is the Bane of Retirement

Some of the most unsettling trends in the GOBankingRates study are revealed when the results are parsed by age. Almost exactly half of the women between the ages of 55 and 64 — 51.4% — have no student debt. That means that the other half are on deck for retirement while still saddled with old student loans — and for many, the saddle is simply too heavy to bear. 

About 14% of women in that age range have $10,000 to $30,000 in student loan debts and another 14% have $30,001 to $50,000. That means that, at the age when they should be scrambling to max out their 401(k)s and IRAs, more than one woman in four is approaching retirement with $10,000 to $50,000 in student loan debt. About 7% have $50,001 to $70,000 in college debt, 4% have between $70,001 and $100,000 and another 4% have more than $100,000.

As for the 65-and-older set, about 65% of women have no student debt, which means that 35% — more than one in three — will reach retirement age while still drowning in their old student loans.

GOBankingRates surveyed 1,003 American women age 18 and older from across the country between Feb. 16 and Feb. 21, 2022, asking eight questions: (1) What is your primary financial goal?; (2) What is the biggest barrier to achieving your financial goal?; (3) If you are actively investing, what is your primary investment vehicle?; (4) If you are not actively investing, what’s preventing you from investing?; (5) What’s the biggest obstacle you’ve faced in your career path?; (6) How much student loan debt do you currently have?; (7) How much credit card debt do you currently have?; and (8) What is your biggest obstacle to paying off your debts (credit card, student loan, medical, etc.)?. GOBankingRates used the Google Survey platform to conduct the poll.

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About the Author

Andrew Lisa has been writing professionally since 2001. An award-winning writer, Andrew was formerly one of the youngest nationally distributed columnists for the largest newspaper syndicate in the country, the Gannett News Service. He worked as the business section editor for amNewYork, the most widely distributed newspaper in Manhattan, and worked as a copy editor for TheStreet.com, a financial publication in the heart of Wall Street's investment community in New York City.
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