U.S. Women Disproportionately Burdened by Student Debt

Yves here. I wonder if the problem of women finding it harder to pay off student debt is compounded by reduced marriage prospects. People under budget stress can’t spend as much money going out or on the personal maintenance that helps in making a better appearance. Sad but true: virtually all the women I knew in business school looked markedly more attractive a few years later because they had the money to get better haircuts, more flattering and often better tailored clothes. This sort of superficial stuff matters more in dating, at least for women. And on top of that, a man might shy from marrying an indebted partner, particularly if he wants kids. All sorts of studies show married women are much better off financially on average in the long term than single women. If nothing else, two can live more cheaply than one.

By Lauren Kaori Gurley, a freelance writer and master’s candidate in Latin American studies and journalism at New York University. Her work has been published in In These Times, the American Prospect and the American Journal of Economics and Sociology. Follow her on Twitter: @laurenkgurley. Originally published at

American women owe nearly twice as much of the nation’s $1.3 trillion in student loan debt as men do, according to a .

Since the 1950s, major strides have been made to shrink the gender gap in enrollment at American colleges and universities, and today, women 57 percent of college students in the United States. But despite these gains, women face disproportionate burdens when it comes to student loan debt—a lifelong economic disadvantage that can weigh down graduates for decades after they’ve earned their degrees.

The student loan debt crisis is frequently cited as one of the primary reasons millennials are waiting longer than previous generations to move out of their parents’ homes, have children and get married. According to an American Association of University Women study, women are facing these challenges at higher rates than men.

The reasons behind this discrepancy stem from a number of interrelated factors, including the unremitting gender wage gap. Today, women earn 10 percent less than men when taking into account factors including occupation, experience and education. Women graduating with bachelor’s degrees this year earned on average $17.88 per hour, while men earned $20.87, making it harder for women to repay loans.

Women are also more likely to attend for-profit schools, which are often convenient for working mothers, but less generous with financial aid, and which do not teach skills that lead to upward economic mobility.

“It’s a systemic problem,” Kevin Miller, a researcher at the American Association of University Women, told the Boston Globe.

According to the same study, African-American women with bachelor’s degrees are particularly weighed down with debt, on average facing over $29,000 in student loans.

The average American woman graduating from a four-year college or university carries $21,000 in college debt, about $1,500 more than the average American man.

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42 comments

  1. Emorej a Hong Kong

    How did this data escape the attention of Hillary’s billion-dollar Presidential campaign?

    1. cocomaan

      Doubt that it didn’t come across their desk. Debt serfdom is accepted on a bipartisan basis.

      1. washunate

        Yeah, this data is highly consistent with the Clinton campaign. It shows, overall, that older workers are doing great relative to younger workers. Younger Americans weren’t exactly Clinton’s target demo in the primary, and for the general, her message was the always-inspiring notion that she was entitled to their votes.

        I think that’s what makes discussion of wage inequality in all its various forms so difficult in our present political arrangement. Inequality is at the heart of what makes our highly educated, bipartisan technocratic system work. Democrats/leftists/intellectuals sometimes pretend to care about niche aspects of inequality, like the gender pay gap, but stubbornly refuse to honestly address the macro question of why public policy should pay any two people differently for doing the same amount of work. Once you accept policy-induced wage inequality, some amount of gender and racial discrimination are unavoidable.

  2. PDB

    How about the fact that women are getting degrees in the BS liberal arts, which results in lower employment prospects or salaries than men who are more likely to be majoring in STEM fields. Case in point: the writer, who is getting a masters degree in Latin American studies from NYU (tuition: $40K/year) (and according to her website, received a BA in comparative literature from the University of Chicago (tuition: $53K/year).

    1. Larry

      Studying liberal arts at a prestigious school will not hamper your career options, trust me on that. The bigger problem is predatory “professional” schools that charge an arm and a leg for training in fields like dental hygenist or medical assistant etc., etc. These schools make enrollment easy and advertise relentlessly such that women without good mentors don’t realize they could potentially attend a much more affordable and better run community college to learn these programs.

      Having been around the college game for a while, I have also seen far less reputable colleges enroll minority students who are not prepared nor supported enough to complete a four year degree. Curry College in Milton, MA successfully recruits from minority neighborhoods around Boston and as recently as about 4-5 years ago had a graduation rate just above 50%. Many student left without a degree but with a substantial debt burden and no prospects to gain employment that would pay for it. Curry is keeping it’s operating budget in line and trying to break through as a college that attracts a wealthier applicant base. It’s the strategy every liberal arts school is attempting if their in the middle to lower tier of national reputation. I was interviewing for college professorships at schools like Curry and better, and had to walk away from the whole affair. I just didn’t want to be part of a debt creation machine on which my personal livelihood depended.

    2. Arizona Slim

      STEM majors have their own problems​ in the job market. Because STEM jobs are nowhere near as plentiful as we have been led to believe.

      1. cocomaan

        Seriously, try getting a degree in astronomy and see about the job prospects.

        When policymakers say STEM, they really mean:

        * Computer science

        * Engineering

        * Math for finance, accounting, actuarial jobs

        1. cm

          And the IEEE (Institute for Electronic & Electrical Engineers) says the STEM shortage is a sham. Why get a degree in Computer Science just to see your job outsourced?

        2. Massinissa

          Its not even just sciences like Astronomy.

          Degree in Geology? Unless youre working for an oil company, good luck finding work!

          Environmental Science? Ha!

          Biology? I hope youre ok with going to medical school.

          And etc etc. Maybe they should cut the S off of STEM.

    3. marym

      Yes, as a society we apparently will no longer value people well educated about Latin America, or with the critical and research skills of someone trained in comparative literature.

      I and most people I knew got our degrees in what you would consider frivolous liberal arts fields. In those days we reasonably looked forward to jobs in teaching, publishing and editing, museum or library work, ngo’s in many do-good fields, social work. Corporations welcomed liberal arts majors as well-rounded entry level workers who, with experience, mentoring, in-house training, and tuition reimbursement were able to build successful careers. People with college degrees in science were able to get entry level lab jobs that also offered a decent living and opportunities for further development. Government jobs used to be called civil service, and also offered entry level decent jobs doing good work for decent pay, benefits, and security; and high-level careers for people with expertise in, oh, Latin America, for example. The national student loan program interest rate was 3%, with forgiveness for teachers, nurses, and doctors. In the 1960’s tuition at the University of Chicago was less than $2000 a year. Tuition at the University of Illinois was less than $200.

      It’s not the students burdened with debt who have failed. It’s a society which has apparently decided that college should be unaffordable, and that all kinds of wonderful work, for college educated people, skilled blue-collar workers, and dedicated service workers – doesn’t need to be done any more; and, if done, certainly doesn’t merit decent pay and benefits.

    4. PKMKII

      Not all STEM fields lead to better employment rates or salaries, it’s highly dependent on the particular area, or sub-area. And many of them require grad school or greater in order to access those higher salaries, e.g. psychology. There’s also the question of networking, you can get a STEM degree but if you don’t make s, put yourself out there, you’ll still struggle. It’s also a classist answer; grad school requirements in certain fields aside, if you’re someone who grew up in a community where no one has college degrees, there’s no collective community knowledge about what fields are profitable like you would in a middle or upper class community. You just know, the people who go to college make more.

      Not to mention, if it was once easy for those with liberal arts degrees to find good paying, middle class jobs, and now it’s not, isn’t that a failure of the job market? The “everyone should be a STEM major” answer is just more neoliberal apologist nonsense, trying to twist what is a systematic problem into an individual failure to be properly hard-working.

    5. johnnygl

      I have long thought that attacking liberal arts majors as useless is a junk argument. All degrees are overpriced, including STEM degrees so deeply admired by our policy makers.

      I work with lots of people who have business degrees and many have mba’s, too. There’s no evidence that those programs groom employees any better than liberal arts degrees. In many cases the liberal arts degrees can communicate better and understand client issues better.

      1. PDB

        Ok, so all of you completely missed the point. It’s not that liberal arts degrees are overpriced compared to STEM (both are overpriced). It’s not that it is a walk in the park to find employment as a STEM major (it’s not, though it’s easier than liberal arts). It’s not that society shouldn’t value liberal arts (it absolutely should, but valuing liberal arts doesn’t mean valuing a modern college degree in liberal arts). It’s not that people who graduate from STEM degrees are inherently smarter/harder working than liberal arts. It’s that if you are a current college student in a liberal arts, you had better face the likelihood of finding a lower paying job than a STEM graduate. And if that means that society and employers value STEM degrees more, then tough shit. The “strong empowered college womyn” had better get with the program instead of complaining about how they have so much more debt than the men.

        1. flora

          Well, my goodness! After reading your comment I cannot resist posting this wonderful old Peggy Seeger song.

    6. Plenue

      Don’t you have a sub to crawl back into? You attempt to backtrack a bit further down, but your describing them as ‘BS’ degrees illustrates what you really think.

  3. Larry

    It’s important for single men as well. I can think of plenty of men who definitely let themselves go after they were no longer single. They gained weight and stopped putting effort into their wardrobe. Plus being single affords one more time to attend to self-up keep.

  4. allan

    It would be interesting to know the break down in terms of for-profit / not for-profit colleges.
    As I recall from Lower-Ed, the majority of students at for-profits (except possibly at the MS/PhD levels,
    are female. So this might be a function of women being victimized by for-profits more than men.

  5. james brown

    “strides have been made to shrink the gender gap in enrollment at American colleges and universities, and today, women make up 57 percent of college students”

    I think the term strides have been made insinuates there is still work to be done. The gender gap has been closed and there’s been some overshoot, obviously. Odd there is no screeching about the current gender gap.

    “owe nearly twice as much of the nation’s $1.3 trillion in student loan debt”

    Imagine that. Women make up nearly two thirds of the college student population and they owe nearly two thirds of student load debt. Life just isn’t fair.

  6. NoBrick

    Yes Martha, “It’s a systemic problem”. Albert E. gave us a couple of clues:
    “Doing the same thing over and over again, BUT expecting different results…
    “The problems won’t be solved with the level of “thinking” that created them..”

    Just as the afflictions of “free market” won’t be cured by a greater dose of
    “free market”, debt peonage isn’t “cured” by more debt.
    Get an “education”, vote the rascals out , and the shots will still be called by
    the unelected. The unity of interests, technology of culture production, gives
    underserved legitimacy to a “system” that continues to function against the
    peoples best interests.

    What part of civic literacy, is formed by a fairy-tale history? What part of
    objectivity, can be connected to obvious falsehoods of how our government
    functions.

    Yes Martha, the world in which we reside is very different from the one we
    were TAUGHT to believe in. Calibrating the commentary, in line with myth
    tautology continues the engineered lines of division.

    “So when it comes to illusions a group holds dear, we need to ask WHO
    benefits from these illusions, who suffers…”

  7. washunate

    There are two important confounding factors here that the author omits. Younger people in general are earning less income relative to older workers than used to be the case even as the main costs of college (tuition, healthcare, and housing) are higher today relative to a few decades ago.

    Since women make up the majority of college admissions today, it makes sense that they comprise the majority of student loan debt. The gender gap is certainly still an issue, but it’s a secondary concern in comparison to the main challenges posed by the age gap and the increased cost of living.

  8. TK421

    Sigh. I expect better from NC. Women have two-thirds of student debt because women are two-thirds of college students. What more is there to say?

  9. Oregoncharles

    The article isn’t clear about how much of the difference occurs at graduation, and how much results from difficulty paying the debt, which it does address. The only reason given for women acquiring more debt in the first place is a preference for for-profit colleges – because they’re more convenient for working mothers? That should be an easy problem to fix; why are non-profit colleges not more accommodating? And how big an effect is that?

  10. Jason Boxman

    Wow. Depending on your debt loan, even $20/hr is hardly enough to make payments and get by!

    I’m fortunate that I can make my quite large monthly payments, but sadly not everyone is.

  11. Jonathan Pine

    Does anyone know if there are more American students going to Europe for college?

  12. kareninca

    Do men really care how women dress, when they are looking for a wife? That is, do they care that they are wearing costly clothing? I haven’t seen that. I thought they cared about weight, but that even Goodwill clothing was fine, if it was well made. If anything I thought I saw men being averse to dating women who were especially well dressed, because they were intimidating and because they figured they’d would cost a fortune to keep. I’m sure costly women’s clothing matters immensely in the work world, but I’m not convinced it is a in the dating world. I would bet that it is more that women who feel they are dressed marvelously act with confidence.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Go out to a bar or a club and you’ll see how young women dress up. If you are gonna date, you need dating clothes. Those are generally not the same as work clothes. Makeup, a good haircut. none of that is free. And just the money to go out to mix with people is more than someone in debt can often spend.

      1. washunate

        I think this is a really intriguing conversation. Does marriage make Americans wealthier, or do wealthier people tend to marry at higher rates than those who are less wealthy?

        And is the expensive part of the dating scene (bars, clubs, etc.) a decent representation of the overall ways in which young people socialize, or does that tend to attract a specific niche of higher income and more outgoing people? I would echo kareninca a bit here as I would hypothesize that a lot of men don’t care for lots of reasons, but primarily that young people in general, not just women, don’t have much money. It’s really expensive to pay a cover fee, buy drinks, get dressed up yourself, get to places, etc. And that’s worse if you’re in social scenes where men are still expected to be the primary initiators, conversation starters, and drink buyers. Going out is a special occasion, not something you do every Thursday and Saturday nights and maybe other nights, too.

        On top of that, the biggest monetary constraint, in the big picture of money, that a lot of young people have is time. They work a tremendous amount between school, jobs, searching for jobs, family commitments, etc. There just isn’t the kind of leisure time in middle class America that used to exist.

        I do agree generally that it costs money to keep up with your social circle, and that friends more broadly are a loose association if/when sudden negative changes occur – you quickly find out that if you can’t go out to eat and can’t go clubbing and all that, you essentially stop being friends. But that’s really a pretty high income slice of Americana to start with, wouldn’t you agree? Most millennials across demographics just don’t have much money. You see younger people walking around in flip flops and ripped jeans all the time. People go months without getting their hair done. Etc. I don’t think that makes younger Americans stand out from each other so much as the people who actually stand out are those with meaningful disposable income.

        Anyway, this is getting afield from direct financial analysis, but I think the social dynamics from inequality are quite widespread and appreciation for how differently younger people have experienced America is still developing.

  13. Just Saying

    wtf is this doing in an article about the distribution of college debt:

    virtually all the women I knew in business school looked markedly more attractive a few years later because they had the money to get better haircuts, more flattering and often better tailored clothes.

    Yes, the most significant and important issue about the gender wage gap and the disproportionate college debt held by women is that it makes women less attractive to men. What kind of stupid does it take to create that framing in an article about income disparity? A very special kind.

    Also, mightly mansplaining idiots, the AVERAGE debt per person will not necessarily increase or decrease because more women are in college than men. TK421,

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      My my, revealing our biases? I see it does not occur to you that I am a woman and that I am therefore quite attuned to how women compete for success in the dating and professional realms. Every study ever done shows people perceived to be attractive are paid better than those that are not, and studies also show that women who wear more makeup (not garishly) are rated as being prettier (same woman, more makeup). Sadly, all of this superficial grooming stuff does make a difference. Why do you think there is an entire industry of fashion magazines ing neuroses that actually do have a bona fide underlying foundation?

      And if you don’t think most men don’t take pride in dating/being attached to attractive women, you are living in a cave.

      I’m old enough so that younger men will talk in front of me in a less inhibited manner, and even ones you’d think would be above it (well educated, in highly PC settings) will still show photos of their girlfriends to other men when I’m in earshot and brag about how hot they are.

      Plus aside from the fixating on a comment I made as a parenthetical, being in debt means not having as much or any budget to go out socially. That puts the individual at a disadvantage professionally and dating-wise.

      And as I said, being in debt makes one less desirable marriage material in and of itself:

      Debt sometimes even prevents couples from getting hitched. A National Foundation for Credit Counseling survey found that 54 percent of people would either not marry until their partner’s debt was paid in full (37 percent), marry but not assist their partner in paying their debt (10 percent), or end the relationship all together (7 percent). The remaining respondents (46 percent) said they would proceed with getting married and work together to pay off the debt.

      Moreover, single women, even before the student loan debt yoke became common, are more likely to go bankrupt than married women. So again, you are off base in acting as if being single v. married is to be dismissed.

      You are shooting the messenger.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          Since when is pointing out how social norms hurt women economically = to MRA? I’ve been saying for year that the fashion industry is bad for women by creating pressure to look a certain way and trade their wardrobes more than men do. The fact that women are under pressure, some of it real, some of it internalized, to compete more on their looks than men do.

          And the pressure for women to wear more makeup and pretty themselves generally has grown since I was in school. When I was in college, women didn’t wear makeup and wore sweatshirts and jeans. By the 1980s, I could see even by being in college areas doing campus recruiting that most college women were wearing makeup and dressing in a far more feminine manner. It looked as if gender norms were being internalized much more strongly.

          1. vlade

            It looks to me mostly to be anglo-saxon, most especifically US that suffers from this (that doesn’t mean non-AS doesn’t, but say the amount of plastics that you can see in US is incomparably higher to what you see in Europe).

            In general, it seems to me that US is obsessed with physical beauty (despite -or maybe because – the fact that large parts of populations are overweight/obese).

            1. Bugs Bunny

              Really?

              Women in France pay enormous attention to the way they dress, their weight, having a fashionable hairstyle, accessories, etc. There’s also lots of plastic surgery and women’s magazines have no taboo against running articles about the best Parisian surgeons. This tendancy includes women who have been in relationships for many years.

              Travel to Asia and it’s the same. There was perhaps a phase in the 1960s-70s when sexual differentiation relaxed in the West but I think that’s long gone.

              I’ve even seen this in rural India…but that’s purely my anecdote.

          2. Plenue

            No, I’m saying it’s drawn out the MRA idiots who have a hissyyfit anytime someone suggests maybe things aren’t ideal for women.

  14. Friedman's Ghost

    Some ideas to help woman pay off this debt:

    Work longer hours on average like men do.

    Work in riskier, less safe occupations like logging and commercial fishing like men do where the chances of getting injured or killed are much greater.

    Work in more physically demanding occupations like farming, construction, roofing, logging and working on oil rigs, where they’d be working alongside men outside in 100 degree weather in the summer and below zero weather in the winter.

    Accept fewer jobs in family-friendly workplace environments like teaching elementary school that coincide with their children’s schedules (with summers off, etc.), and accept more jobs in family-unfriendly workplace environments like being an over-the-road truck driver or being an oil field worker.

    Take less time off, or no time off, for child birth and child care to minimize their time away from the labor force that might affect their earnings.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Stop sputtering bullshit. Women in professions like being doctors make 20% less than men. And yes, they measured income specialty by specialty:

      1. washunate

        Yves, you’re right of course in the big picture that Friedman’s Ghost isn’t offering a serious solution. But I’m not sure that Bloomberg article actually addresses the student debt problem? If anything, it falls for the bait.

        First of all, the details are behind a paywall, so we cannot publicly assess the validity of the analysis. But more importantly, it’s talking about people making six figure compensation packages in the largest predatory industry in the nation (healthcare). At ‘normal’ wages, the kinds of wages where most workers find themselves (especially young workers, who hold the vast majority of outstanding student loan debt), the gender gap is notably smaller. Not nothing, but rather small compared to the much larger issues of age gaps, occupation gaps, increased cost of living, and so forth.

        Moreover, a key philosophical issue with wage inequality is that it has nothing to do with the performance of workers. That article itself holds out training, background, and negotiation as three primary causes of the gender gap. That raises a legitimate moral and practical question about why we pay different people different wages for doing the same amount of work when virtually everyone agrees that the difference is not due to innate value creation but is instead due to extraneous factors.

      2. Friedman's Ghost

        As washunate rightly states, the details of the Bloomberg article are behind a paywall. However, if this is true (and if I am truly sputtering bullshit) then hospitals, HMOs and every other healthcare provider should be clamoring to hire more female doctors no? Think of the cost savings and improvement to the bottom line. I simply don’t buy it.

        The Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) releases an annual report on US graduate school enrollment and degrees. Here are some of the more interesting findings:

        Women earned a majority of doctoral degrees awarded at US universities.

        By field of study, women earning doctoral degrees in 2015 outnumbered men in 7 of the 11 graduate fields tracked by the CGS : Arts and Humanities (52.4% female), Biology (52.4%), Education (67.9%), Health Sciences (69.7)%, Public Administration (65.5%), Social/Behavioral Studies (61.8%) and Other fields (51.8%).

        Men still earned a majority of doctoral degrees in the fields of Business (54.8% male, down from 57.1% in 2014), Engineering (76.2%), Math and Computer Science (70.6%, down from 73.9% in 2014), and Physical Sciences (64.8%).

        So, to go back to your original point. Perhaps one way women can ease the burden of student debt is to associate with men who earn graduate degrees in Business, Engineering, Math, etc. Also, women can invest more in the “superficial stuff” (in your words) to attract a mate and get married. Of course, this does not change my point that women will need to take less time off, or no time off, for child birth and child care to minimize their time away from the labor force that might affect their earnings.

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