AAUW's Kim Churches: The student debt crisis is a women's issue

Women earning a bachelor’s degree owe almost $3,000 more than their male peers, according new research by the American Association of University Women.
Kim Churches, CEO of the American Association of University Women.Courtesy of the AAUW.
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By Kim Churches

The student debt crisis has been grabbing a lot of headlines lately, but there’s an aspect of the issue that’s not getting the attention it deserves: The lion’s share of student debt is held by women.

A new analysis we did at the American Association of University Women found that women hold almost two-thirds of the country’s $1.46-trillion student debt. That’s $929 billion, compared to $531 billion held by men.

Those are staggering numbers to wrap your mind around, but consider this: Women earning a bachelor’s degree owe almost $3,000 more than their male peers. And it’s even more for black women, who graduate with about $8,000 more debt than men.

What’s even worse is that female college graduates are greeted with a pay gap from the minute they enter the workforce. Our research shows that women with bachelor’s degrees who work full time are paid on average 26 percent less than their male peers. No surprise then that they have a harder time paying than men paying off their student debt.

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The bottom line: Women begin their careers earning less—and owing more—than men do, and that sets them up for a lifetime of greater economic insecurity. It makes it harder for them to build an emergency fund, make a down payment on a home, start a business, save for retirement—and do all the things necessary to be on sound financial footing.

If we want to get serious about women’s economic equality, we need to focus on making it easier for women to get an education without sacrificing their economic well-being. And one way to do that is by tackling the issue of student debt.

How We Got Here

When I went started college back in the 1980s, a college education was more affordable. As a full-time student, I paid my tuition and expenses by working various jobs and by taking out some loans. But I made a personal commitment to pay off my loans before I turned 30, and I achieved that.

It’s harder for today’s college students, who face steeper costs: Since 1987, there’s been a 103 percent increase in the price tag of attending college, yet there’s been only a 14 percent increase in median household income since that time. That means more people are forced to take on more debt to earn a degree.

Women tend to have more debt than men for a variety of reasons. In part, it’s because of the gender pay gap they face: Though both genders are about equally likely to work when they’re undergraduates, women make about $1,500 less annually than male students.

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On top of that, women students are more likely than men to have additional expenses, such as the cost of child-care. More than one quarter of students are parents, often single parents. And a large majority – 71 percent – of student parents are women. Naturally, this makes it difficult for parent students to work to pay for college costs.

Our research uncovered another factor that’s sad, but true: Women students simply do not get as much family support as male students do. And that, too, explains their need to borrow more for school.

What We Need to Do

The good news is that the student debt crisis is getting the attention it deserves. Recently, JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon made news when he called it a “disgrace” that’s “hurting America.” And we’ve been hearing a lot from candidates for president about a variety of proposals to make college more affordable and to ease the burden of student debt.

We, too, are eager to make sure that something gets done. At the very least, we want our lawmakers to safeguard and expand Pell Grants and other forms of aid that make college more affordable to individuals of limited financial means. We’d like our state and federal legislators to increase funding for public colleges, and AAUW supports efforts to move toward tuition-free and debt-free options for students. We’d also like to see colleges and universities help address the child-care needs of students who are parents. Finally, we want a comprehensive strategy to close the gender pay gap, including passing the federal Paycheck Fairness Act, to put women on equal economic footing.

Education has been lauded over the decades as the great equalizer, and it can be a pathway to opportunity. We celebrate that women are graduating from college and graduate school in record numbers. But that celebration is tempered by the debt that weighs down their choices and chances when they enter the workforce. For women to thrive and be economically secure, they deserve a fair shot from the start. Easing their burden of debt would be a smart move in the right direction.

Kim Churches is the CEO of the American Association of University Women, a national non-partisan nonprofit that works to advance gender equity for women and girls through research, education and advocacy