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The student debt gender gap: Women burdened more by debt call for systemic changes

(NEW YORK) — In the coming weeks, thousands of graduates will walk across a stage to receive their college diploma.

When they leave the stage, they will have not only a degree but also, in most cases, a mountain of bills, joining the more than 40 million Americans who owe a collective $1.76 trillion in student debt, according to the Education Data Initiative, a nonprofit organization.

Corazon Eaton of Columbus, Ohio, is among that group. The 35-year-old graduated with a master’s degree in public health in 2014, earning a diploma that cost her more than $100,000 in student loans.

“The only thing that I was really taught as an immigrant in the United States is the importance of an education and that I needed to obtain that in order to further and advance my professional and personal life,” Eaton, who was born in Kenya, told Good Morning America. “And so, that’s what I did.”

Over the next decade, Eaton said interest on her loans grew, eventually accruing $30,000 on top of what she owed at graduation.

“Thinking through the long-term impact of this was not something that I was aware of when I took out all these student loans,” she said. “Maybe I would have done things differently.”

In less than two decades, student debt in the United States has increased by 144%, growing from just over $640 billion in 2007 to more than $1.5 trillion today, according to a report released last year by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

The rise, experts say, is attributable to many factors, including policy decisions that made student loans both easier to obtain and harder to pay back, economic recessions and the shift in payment burden to families.

Another factor is the rising cost of college — a 103% increase over the past three decades — compared to a much slower increase in household income, which increased by only 14% in that same time period, according to the American Association of University Women, a nonprofit focused on advancing gender equity.

“We have seen a shift in who is paying for college,” Fenaba R. Addo, associate professor of public policy at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, who studies student debt and wealth inequality, told GMA. “That burden has shifted to families who are facing stagnant wages and income over time, and loans became the solution.”

Student debt burden falls on women from the start

The bulk of student loan debt in the U.S. has fallen on women, who today hold nearly two-thirds of all outstanding student debt, an amount that totals more than $900 billion, according to the American Association of University Women.

More female undergraduates take on student loans upon entering college than men. Upon graduation, a female graduate owes, on average, nearly $22,000 in debt, while a male graduate owes, on average, around $18,000, the group found.

“It is a significant burden on women when it comes to the ways in which it impacts every aspect of their careers and their lives moving forward,” Gloria Blackwell, the group’s CEO, told GMA.

One reason for the divide is that, on top of taking out more student loans, women outpace men when it comes to earning both their four-year college degrees and their graduate degrees, according to the Pew Research Center and the National Center for Education Statistics.

“If you take on a student loan for your bachelor’s degree, and you take on a student loan for your graduate degree, the compilation of those two is going to put you in a space where you’re going to owe more,” said Nicole Smith, research professor and chief economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “So women are disproportionately holders of more education and therefore more likely to hold higher amounts of debt associated with having achieved that.”

Experts also pointed to for-profit colleges as a cause of rising student debt for women, who make up 63% of the for-profit student population, according to the Center for Analysis of Postsecondary Education and Employment.

For-profit colleges are designed with flexibility in mind, and also have higher fees and tuition than both community colleges and public universities, according to the organization.

“The way that they’re modeled, the flexibility in being able to work and also go to school, has overwhelmingly attracted women, especially Black women who did not complete their degrees the first time or did not go straight from high school or are looking to change careers,” Addo said. “They’re a vehicle for women not only to return to college and get their degrees, but also to do so at a high cost.”

Women are also more impacted by student debt if they have children, as they may borrow more to ease the burden of other household costs, such as child care. Women with children may also lack the ability to work while attending school, and having a child may also extend the length of time they’re in college, Blackwell said.

A disproportionate burden on Black women

Black women are the most likely of any gender group to have student loans. According to the Census Bureau, around 1 in 4 Black women report having some student debt.

Black women graduate with an average of $37,558 in student debt, according to research by the American Association of University Women research.

“Black women take on more debt than anyone, and so they graduate with more student loan debt than any other category,” Blackwell said. “That’s a combination of racism and sexism and those intersecting pieces that put a disproportionate burden on Black women.”

As Black women and other minority women enter college, they often are forced to take on more student loans due to what Blackwell calls the racial wealth gap. They are also more often to be first-generation college students, which may mean having less knowledge of the financial aid system than their peers.

“Knowing that the typical white family has at least eight times the wealth of a Black family and five times that of a Latino family, it really shows that the student debt crisis is really about the racial wealth gap,” said Blackwell. “They have less support from their families. There is no generational wealth that is there to pick up whatever the gap is.”

Kristin McGuire, 40, who is Black, said she had to borrow more than $20,000 to attend a four-year public college in California. In the years since, she said her debt was compounded by forbearance programs that increased the amount of money she would have to repay to over $50,000.

“After college, I was not completely sure how to go into repayment,” McGuire told GMA. “I think one of the larger problems with our student debt system is we allow 18-year-olds to take out these loans and not really have a clear understanding on how to repay them.”

Systemic barriers to paying off debt

While women graduate, on average, with around $4,000 more in student loan debt than men, the burden for women grows dramatically in the years after college, as they try to repay it, experts say.

According to the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), a policy-focused organization focused on gender justice, women across all races are also paid approximately 83 cents to every dollar paid to men across the same groups. With less income, they are unable to pay as much debt off each month, which leads to higher interest and increased debt.

For women of color, the pay gap is even worse, with Black women earning 64 cents on the dollar, and Latinas earning just 57 cents. Among Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander women, the gap varies according to group, with some making as little as 52 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men.

That loss of pay adds up to hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of a career, the National Women’s Law Center said.

As women, particularly Black women, make less money in their careers, they have less money to pay back their student loans, a confluence Smith described as a “perfect storm.”

“They make less money. They need to borrow more. They struggle significantly with repayment. You have the gender wage gap,” Smith told GMA. “You really have a perfect storm where the experience of Black women with student loans is that they, at the end of the day, end up with the highest proportion of student loan debt, eight years after, 10 years after graduation.”

In addition to the gender pay gap, many women are also impacted by the caregiving gap, often taking lesser-paying jobs that allow flexibility to care for children or other family members. On average, women who are mothers make 70 cents for every dollar paid to fathers, according to the American Association of University Women.

Smith said women are also disproportionately in careers that require high levels of education, like teaching and nursing, but that are not high-paying, making loan repayment even more tricky.

When women spend decades of their lives paying off loans, they are less likely to be able to save for retirement and less likely to have a stake in things like home ownership, car ownership and investments, according to Blackwell.

For McGuire, the student loan debt that has followed her throughout her adult life has meant that she and her husband had to delay purchasing their first home and haven’t been able to fully contribute to their savings for themselves and their two children.

“[…] Not contributing to 401(k)s because we’re trying to pay off student debt. These are the things that will impact us later on that maybe we’re not seeing right now,” McGuire said. “That $500 a month payment for my student loan could have been something that would help me prepare for myself in older age, as well as my husband and as well as all Americans who are making these decisions.”

The burden of student loans may also impact more personal choices for women, like where they live, whether they can expand their family and whether or not they stay in a marriage.

Marquita Prinzing, of Renton, Washington, still owes around $100,000 in student loans more than a decade after finishing her master’s degree in education. She said it was only during the past two years of the coronavirus pandemic — during which student loan repayments were paused — that she was able to leave her marriage and buy her first home on her own.

Still, Prinzing, a 38-year-old mother of two, said she continues to feel the weight of her student loans as Aug. 31, the date federal student loan payments are set to restart, approaches.

Having to once again deal with the loan payments then “means I can’t really think of a different or bigger future,” she told GMA in April, when President Joe Biden extended the repayment pause.

Women feel squeezed amid student debt debate

Over the past two years of the pandemic, Perla Ortiz of Fabens, Texas, saw her college career upended, even as her student loans loomed.

In the spring of 2021, Ortiz, a first-generation college student, lost her work-study job on campus at St. Edward’s University in Austin when classes switched to a virtual format. She then moved back home and had to take a break from school to work and save money.

Though she is not currently attending school and does not yet have her college diploma, Ortiz will owe tens of thousands of dollars when student loan repayments resume in August.

“Sometimes, because of my financial situation, it’s hard to go to sleep with peace of mind knowing that when I wake up, I’m going to have to work really hard in order to pay that money back,” she said.

Biden pledged to approve $10,000 in student loan forgiveness for every federal borrower during his presidential campaign, but he has yet to do so, and has expanded parts of existing loan forgiveness programs instead.

In the meantime, as borrowers wait to see what, if anything, will happen before the repayment pause ends in August, women’s advocates are calling for broader changes to what they describe as systemic inequalities that negatively impact women.

“We have been pushing for quite a long time to pass legislation around eliminating the pay gap, like the Paycheck Fairness Act, and closing some of the loopholes that exist and are why the pay gap issues are perpetuated,” Blackwell said. “If you’re not going to push forward with loan forgiveness, at least give women an opportunity to really step into their full earning path.”

For Eaton, it was not until she got a new job last year that nearly doubled her income that she said she was able to make a significant dent in her student loans. With repayments paused, and no accumulating interest, Eaton said she saved more than $130,000 in 14 months and paid off her remaining loan balance.

“The average person spends 20 years of their life paying their student loan debt, and I just didn’t want to be imprisoned with that,” she said. “So it felt such a relief to be able to do it.”

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