“What do you want to do with your life?”
As a rising college senior, this is the second most popular question posed to me. The first is, “What are you majoring in?”, but the two tend to go together. Unfortunately, the people asking me these questions about the rest of my life never get a straight answer. I don’t know what I want to do. My thoughts shift from “I have no clue” to “Literally whatever job will hire me” about every other minute. The latter half comes from one fact about my future that I know for sure: starting 6 months after graduation, I’ll begin paying off the $80,000 I borrowed to attend college.
My student loans have been an inevitable reality for as long as I can remember. My family falls into the sliver of an income range that renders us unable to qualify for financial aid but also unable to be able to hand over tens of thousands of dollars to my university. I’ve always thought of my student debt as a personal issue, a millennial issue, or an economic issue. However, I’ve recently discovered that my daunting debt is also a women’s issue.
If you’re a feminist, particularly one with student loans, get ready to be real angry.
Women are more likely to take out student loans, more likely to take out larger loans, and are responsible for a majority of the total student loan debt. 66% of the total student debt is held by women. At least 44% of women take out loans to pay for higher education, a rate 5 percentage points higher than that of men. Women also have an initial loan balance that is an average of 14% higher than their male counterparts. This is, in part, due to the fact that a majority of college students are women. Women made up 56% of the total enrolled students in Fall 2016. However, the larger proportion of students that are women does not fully explain the higher amounts of loans taken out. One explanation could be that women incur more costs while in school. Women make up 71% of college students that are also parents of a dependent child. Women are paid less, thanks to the ever-present pay gap, meaning that they have less money to use to pay for school. Women working while in school make about $1,500 less per a year than male students who work. There are a number of gendered factors creating the reality that gives women more than their fair share of student debt.
Women also draw the short stick when it comes to repaying student loans. It takes women an average of 2 years, or 21% longer than men, to pay off their student loans. The reality of student debt for women exists in and perpetuates a cycle of income inequity. Women take longer to pay off their loans which leads to more interest and a higher balance. Their increased financial burden makes women less likely to take financial risks, such as investing or making a career change. Their inability to take these steps can contribute to the pay gap, which also contributes to women’s lack of ability to pay off their loans. The gendered reality of student debt also has an effect on individuals’ well-being. 45% of women interviewed 4 years after college graduation said their stress level connected to student loans was high or very high, compared to only 34% of men. Student debt is a problem for many in school but tends to be a larger problem for female students.
I spoke with several women who are either currently in college or are recent graduates about their student loans. This is what they have to say:
Maddie Reich, 22
Maddie graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2017 with majors in Psychology and Journalism.
“I do worry about repaying my loans. Especially lately because I was planning on participating in a government program where if you work for the government for a certain number of years, you get partial loan forgiveness. However, that’s one of the programs that the Trump administration is thinking about getting rid of, so it’s less certain that I’ll be able to participate. I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to repay my loans eventually, but I certainly worry about making enough to repay them. Considering women routinely make less than men for the same job, it definitely makes it feel harder to repay the loans. Not only that, but the field I’m going in is a female-dominated field and thus paid much less than it really should be, so I will be making less money by virtue of that.”
Mariah Richardson, 21
Mariah will graduate from Western Carolina University in 2019 with a major in Psychology and minor in Business Administration
“Women are not seen at the same equivalence as men. When you factor in my ethnicity with my gender role in the workplace it is almost a double whammy. Not only am I viewed as a woman, I’m an AFRICAN AMERICAN woman, which makes finding a job that much more difficult. There have always been uneven shifts in everything that can be separated by gender. Women make less than men. Women are valued less than men. But somehow we owe more than men.”
Hailey Odum, 22
Hailey graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2016 with a Psychology major and Spanish for the Medical Professions minor.
“I am in education which is a more female oriented field, this means that I typically make less money and have a harder time making loan payments. However, because I am married I am able to use my husband’s income to supplement my own to make loan payments. Essentially, if I were not married to someone working in a male dominated field making more money then I would not be able to make my loan payments. I think that there is a major issue with student loans in general. It seems that women might have the worst end of the deal both in how many loans they have to take out and in their ability to payback their loans.”
Student debt is a gendered problem and by not taking this into account we are doing a severe disservice to our female students. Women have the right to an education and should not be financially punished based on their gender. It is worth noting that while the statistics in this article are an average for women, the financial reality is often worse for women of color. Black women take on more student debt than any other group. We need to start viewing student debt as a women’s issue but cannot forget intersectionality in our analysis.
So what do we do? You can take action for equal pay and less student debt in several ways. American Association of University Women has a lot of great resources, including Becoming a Two-Minute Activist. The United State of Women also has great information and action steps for Affordable College and Equal Pay. Whatever you do, stay informed, stay involved, and keep aspiring to do more!