The burden of student debt is having an outsize impact on women who now hold nearly two thirds of the $1.3 trillion in outstanding education loans, according to a report released Wednesday by the American Association of University Women.
“It’s important to understand all of the challenges facing women in the United States, and in terms of their economic well-being, student debt is a big one,” said Kevin Miller, senior researcher at the AAUW.
Based on data from the Education Department, Miller and his team estimate that women enrolled in college borrow about 14 percent more on average than men in a given year. Women typically owe $1,500 more than their male counterparts upon completion of a bachelor’s degree, and African American women take on more student debt on average than any other group of women, the study said.
Khallilah Watkins, 27, can attest to the struggle that some African American women face in covering the cost of college. There was no end to the emotional support her family provided while she attended the University of Missouri, but Watkins said no one had the financial resources to help pay for tuition, room and board, so she borrowed nearly $50,000 to obtain a bachelor’s degree.
By the time she landed at Trinity Washington University to pursue an advanced degree in communications, Watkins hoped to keep her borrowing to a minimum by using a portion of the education grant she received after serving as a high school counselor through AmeriCorps. But she still needed to take out more loans. After dropping out of Trinity because of financial hardship, Watkins deferred her loan payments as she had trouble finding work to cover all of her expenses. With the interest that accrued on the debt, she now owes $74,000.
“I’m a first-generation college student, so I had to figure out a lot of this on my own,” said Watkins, who lives in Chicago with her husband and newborn daughter. “I wasn’t naive about having to repay the debt, but the interest accumulation — it’s just all too much.”
Considering the larger loan amounts that women take on and the fact that they make up more than half of the college population, the study estimates that 64 percent of student debt, or about $833 billion, is held by women. That number may actually be bit higher because the study only looked at graduates, not women who drop out of college or mothers who take out parent loans to help their children pay for school.
The study found that it takes the average woman nearly two years longer to repay student loans than their male counterparts. Researchers suspect that gender wage inequality plays a large role in the disparity in repayment rates. An earlier study by the association found that women with college degrees earn 26 percent less than men in comparable jobs. Lower incomes and longer repayment timetables are a drag on women’s financial security, the study said.
The pace of repayment is especially slow for African American and Latino women, who also have among the highest default rates. While a third of all women who were repaying student loans reported having trouble covering living expenses within the past year, the same was true for 57 percent of African American women, the study said.
Curry Oglesby, 30, felt forced to choose between paying her loans and covering rent, groceries and transportation after graduating from Howard University in 2009. At the time, she held a commission-based retail job that meant her paycheck fluctuated from one month to the next. That eventually led her to request a deferment of her loan payments, but after exhausting the option, Oglesby wound up in default on her $20,000 debt. Within several months, the government began garnishing her wages.
“It’s been a hard go,” said Oglesby, who contended on and off with garnishment from 2014 to 2016 as she switched jobs. “I worked really, really hard to make sure my commissions made up for the money I was losing. I paid down a lot of the debt, got it down to $6,000 and got the garnishment off.”
Oglesby said she wishes her high school had offered more guidance on paying for college and selecting a career. Despite excelling in math and science classes, she thought teachers steered her into what she felt were more-gendered professions, such as teaching.
“That negatively affected my idea of what I thought I could do, and negatively affected my potential earnings,” she said. “My parents just wanted me to get a degree and get a job, so I could have used a little more guidance.”
Anne Hedgepeth, senior government relations manager at AAUW, said colleges and universities need to play a bigger role in financial literacy and be advocates for greater state and federal investment to reduce the need to borrow.
The association is calling on Congress to strengthen the federal Pell Grant program by making appropriations entirely mandatory to avoid annual funding disputes. The purchasing power of the grant is at its lowest level at a time when college costs continue to climb, leaving students of modest means susceptible to borrowing a lot for school costs. The group also wants lawmakers to safeguard support services, such as on-campus child care, that help women complete their degrees.
Both the purchasing power of Pell and the future of campus child care are under threat in the 2018 White House budget. While President Trump supports extending Pell awards for three semesters, instead of two, he wants to leave the maximum award at $5,920 and plans to pull $3.9 billion out of the program’s reserve fund. His budget also cuts all funding to a federal program that assists low-income college students with child-care costs, known as the Child Care Access Means Parents in School (CCAMPIS).
“Anything that helps ensure that students graduate in a timely fashion is also a way to support students in repayment,” Miller said. “And that means focusing resources on nontraditional students and students who are most likely to leave school because we know that they often have the hardest time repaying student debt.”