Women in School: The Wage Gap Is a Matter of Life or Debt for Women

A new report by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) has revealed that women hold about 65 percent of the outstanding student debt in the United States, which works out to a burden of more than $800 billion. That massive number is a direct result of the crushing expense of higher education in America, which has contributed to a debt epidemic that plagues millions of borrowers long into their post-school lives. But it’s critical that our conversations about the cost of school acknowledge the fact that women are bearing the brunt of this burden. Only then will we be able to effectively address all the systemic factors that contribute to it. As AAUW said in its report — student debt has become a women’s issue.

The first step for many people seeking higher education is taking out a loan to pay for it, and women are more likely to do so than men. Why? The pay gap leaves the average adult woman with less money, and so her ability to pay for school out of pocket is already diminished due to her gender. Another contributing factor? The number of college students who are parents has been steadily increasing, and single mothers make up much of this cohort. The high cost of childcare helps explain why the amount of money women borrow to go to school is usually more than what men do, as illustrated in the AAUW report.

This uneven balance becomes even more pronounced when graduates start to repay their loans. Women working full time with college degrees make 26 percent less than their male counterparts, meaning that they have less income to devote to paying down debt accrued from school. The situation is even more harrowing for black women and Latinas, who have to contend with a wider pay gap than white women do. More than half of the black women who were repaying loans in 2016 reported being unable to cover essential expenses like rent. For those who pursue education in order to expand their employment opportunities and become more economically secure, it’s devastating to find themselves with a debt load that undermines the very success they’re striving towards.

Pictured is Vanessa, a working student who shared her story with Women Employed.

It’s unacceptable that higher education in America equates to a life sentence of debt for so many people. School needs to be more accessible and more affordable, especially for low-income students. That’s why Women Employed defends financial aid programs like Pell grants and Illinois’ Monetary Award Program (MAP) grants, which are chronically underfunded and often targeted by legislators for cuts.

It’s clear that wage disparity is also part and parcel of the student debt crisis, though most people don’t associate the cost of school with the pervasive pay gap that permeates every sphere of working women’s lives. But when women, despite their qualifications make less in the workplace, everyone suffers — their partners, their children, their families, and their communities. It even impacts businesses — after all, the banks who dispense student loans suffer when women can’t repay them. That’s why we all should advocate for legislation and employment policies that support equal pay; if we don’t, the consequences will continue to pile up just like America’s student debt.

Read part two in WE’s Women in School series here .