While student loan debt impacts both men and women, women shoulder the greater share of the burden. According to a study from the American Association of University Women (AAUW), women owe more money and struggle more to pay it off, making student loan debt a serious women’s issue. Given high levels of student loan stress, it’s no wonder that borrowers delay getting married, buying a home and having children.
In the AAUW’s report, Deeper in Debt: Women and Student Loans, the organization found that women hold two-thirds of the nation’s student loan debt. That means women owe about $1 trillion of total student loan debt outstanding.
Part of the reason behind the number is that more women are going to college than men. In 1976, women made up just 48% of college campuses; today, they make up 57%, and earn the majority of degrees, even at the doctoral level.
However, just having more women in college doesn’t account for why women hold so much debt. The AAUW also found that women take out more money in student loans than men. Worse, they take longer to pay the debt off. In fact, it takes women approximately two years longer than men to pay off their student loans, causing them to pay more in interest. Women are also more likely to default on their student loans.
Why women are in so much debt
When women fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), their Expected Family Contribution (EFC) is lower than that of men. That means that women start with fewer resources to pay for college, and have to rely on more financial aid to cover the gap. That often means more student loans.
Women also have fewer resources to repay their student loans in part because of the gender wage gap that exists nationwide. Today, women still make 26% less than their male counterparts, regardless of education level or role, putting them at a distinct disadvantage.
Women also disproportionately handle childcare responsibilities. With the cost of having to send a child to daycare or to find alternative options, women have less discretionary income to pay down their debt.
Women are also more likely to be targeted by for-profit colleges, causing them to take on expensive debt for degrees that are often not worth much on the job market, worsening the problem.
With more debt, less income and more responsibilities, it’s easy to understand why women struggle so much more with their student loans than men. The problem can have long-lasting consequences. With so much debt, women may not be able to pursue other financial goals, like saving for retirement.
How to handle your student loans
Student loan debt is a burden faced by millions of women, and it can be a difficult problem to avoid or manage. However, you can help your situation by using these tips.
Limit how much debt you take on in the first place
If you’re still in school or planning to go to college, you can help yourself by limiting how much debt you take on. Avoid costly for-profit schools, and consider attending an in-state public university over a more expensive private college.
Fill out the FAFSA as soon as possible to make sure you get all the aid you’re entitled to receive, such as grants and scholarships. You can also reduce how much money you need to borrow by applying for other grants and scholarships from private organizations.
Parents can help by saving more for their daughters’ college educations with 529 college savings plans. Studies have shown that families are less likely to save for a girl’s college education.
Explore supplemental programs
In another study, the AAUW found that a year at daycare can cost more than a year at a public university. If you’re facing high childcare expenses, explore supplemental programs that may help reduce your monthly bills.
Some college campuses offer on-site childcare at a subsidized cost, or you can contact 2-1-1 to find out if there are low-cost daycare options or voucher programs in your area.
Avoid student loan default
Student loan default can have significant consequences, not the least of which is that it can ruin your credit. If you’re in danger of defaulting on your student loans, contact your loan servicer right away and explain your situation. You may be eligible for a loan deferment or forbearance — where you can postpone making payments without entering into default — while you get back on your feet.
If you think your financial difficulties are longer-lasting, you may want to consider applying for an income-driven repayment plan. Under these plans, your payments are capped at a percentage of your discretionary income. Some people qualify for payments as low as $0.
Increase your income
Increasing your income may sound impossible, but it can be done. To address the pay gap, you need to be your own advocate. If you’re underpaid at your current job, ask for a raise or consider looking for higher-paid work elsewhere. When you’re offered a job, negotiate a higher salary for yourself. Be aggressive. They are not going to give you higher pay unless you ask for it.
Women are often at a disadvantage because many jobs base your offer off of your current salary; if you’re currently underpaid, that can cause you to be underpaid throughout your career. To break the cycle, look for companies that have transparent pay structures that are role-specific, and not based on previous salaries.
The student loan crisis is a national epidemic, but as the AAUW study shows, it disproportionately affects women. Women taken on more debt, take longer to pay it back because of the pay gap, and are more likely to default than men, making it difficult for them to get ahead financially.