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You'll Never Guess How Much of America's Student Loan Debt Is Owed by Women

By Christy Bieber – Updated Feb 6, 2020 at 2:15PM

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Women owe the majority of student loan debt. The gender gap could be one reason why.

Student loan debt is a major problem for people of all genders, races, and ages. In fact, recent research shows the outstanding balance on student loans has reached $1.59 trillion amongst the 44.7 million borrowers with student debt.

While many are affected by loan debt, it’s a bigger financial burden for some than others. In particular, women take out more student loans and owe more student loan debt than their male counterparts. There are a few reasons for that -- some of which are good for women and some of which are very bad.

Woman trying to climb a ladder up a stack of books with a giant box labeled debt on her back.

Image source: Getty Images

To get a clearer idea of the student loan crisis, it is important to understand how much total student loan debt is owed by women -- and this understanding is essential to formulating policy fixes as political solutions are considered. 

How much of America's student loan debt is owed by women?

According to The Ascent's recent research, women owe the vast majority of student loan debt in the United States. In fact, women are responsible for close to two-thirds of the current student loan debt in the country. 

Women are both more likely to graduate with debt and more likely to have higher debt balances than their male counterparts. A total of 41% of female undergrads borrowed during the 2015 to 2016 academic year, compared with just 35% of male undergraduates. And in 2016, the average student debt balance for women with bachelor's degrees was $21,619 compared with $18,880 among their male counterparts.

Why do women have more student loan debt? 

There is a positive reason that women have more student loan debt: They earn more degrees. 

As The Ascent's research on the gender pay gap revealed, women have earned the majority of bachelor's degrees each year since 1982, the majority of master's degrees since 1987, and the majority of doctoral degrees since 2006. Since women earn more degrees, it's natural that they would be responsible for more of the total outstanding student loan balance. Earning all of these degrees is expensive.

Unfortunately, there's also a much less positive reason that women owe more: the gender pay gap. 

The gender pay gap has persisted for decades, with median earnings data showing a gap in what women make compared with their male counterparts going all the way back to 1979.  Although things have improved, even in 2018, women had median earnings equal to just 81% of men's median earnings in the United States. 

Sadly, the fact that more women now have degrees has not resulted in the gender pay gap closing. In fact, there's actually a bigger earnings gap between women with bachelor's degrees or graduate or professional degrees and men with similar credentials than the gap for less educated women. 

What can be done?

Unfortunately, both the student loan crisis and the gender pay gap likely need political solutions. However, individual women can also aim to improve their own situations -- although their efforts may not always be successful given entrenched attitudes about gender and wages. 

Women, like men, should explore opportunities for scholarships and grants to make the cost of their education as inexpensive as possible. Women can also look to local women's groups and organizations that specifically aid in their advancement to perhaps find some additional financial aid that may not be available to their male counterparts.

Women should also negotiate aggressively for a higher salary when starting a job and should be assertive in negotiating for raises. While research has shown that women may be less likely to get a raise even when they ask, it is still worth the effort to try to earn as high a salary as possible. Women should also look for employers with open pay policies or who use standard pay rates for each position so they are less likely to be hit by a gender gap in the wages they earn.

Of course, these suggestions put the onus on women to correct a problem not of their creation. Still, unless and until societal change occurs, women owe it to themselves to do what they can to try to earn a salary commensurate with their education and experience so they can better repay the large student loan burden they've taken on.


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