Women represent 56 percent of college students, but hold 65 percent of education debt. Photo credit: Shutterstock.

Key points:

  • 71 percent of women borrow to get their bachelor’s degree, compared to 66 percent of men
  • Women graduate with $2,700 more student loan debt than men, on average
  • Black women make 37 percent less and Hispanic women 34 percent less with their degrees than white men

It wasn’t that long ago that total U.S. student loan debt surpassed the $1 trillion mark. Now it looks like it won’t be long before women alone owe that much.

That’s right — women are burdened with $890 billion in student loan debt, 82 percent more than the $490 billion cumulative educational debt held by men.

That’s according to an analysis of the latest statistics from the Department of Education by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), in a report exploring the disparity and what to do about it.

In one sense, it’s inevitable that women would hold the majority of student loan debt — for nearly 40 years, they’ve represented the majority of students on campus. Three out of four women who complete high school or obtain a G.E.D. go on to college, compared to just two-thirds of men.

But there are deeper, troubling factors behind the lopsided distribution of student loan debt between the sexes.

Yes, women represent about 56 percent of college students. But they hold 65 percent of education debt. That’s because women are more likely to need to borrow in order to earn their bachelor’s degree, and they also have to borrow more, the AAUW analysis showed.

Throw race into the equation, and things can get even tougher. Black women take on the most debt of any group ($30,400 on average) to earn a bachelor’s degree, which compares to $22,000 for white women and $19,500 for white men.

Source: “Deeper in Debt: Women and Student Loans,” American Association of University Women, May 2018.

And because women earn less with their degrees, it takes them longer to pay that debt off:

Source: “Deeper in Debt: Women and Student Loans,” American Association of University Women, May 2018.

“Women take about two years longer on average to repay their student loans than do men and are also more likely to struggle economically during repayment,” the AAUW said in summarizing the latest numbers. “This means that women may have to put off saving for retirement, buying a home, or starting a business.”

Source: “Deeper in Debt: Women and Student Loans,” American Association of University Women, May 2018.

The AAUW says the problem should be addressed on three fronts:

  • Help students obtain a degree without taking on so much debt in the first place
  • Protect programs like income-driven repayment and Public Service Loan Forgiveness that help struggling borrowers
  • Boost job opportunities and pay for women so they can pay off their loans faster

The AAUW says it’s time to strengthen the Equal Pay Act by passing The Paycheck Fairness Act, a step that has little support among Republicans in Washington, D.C.

A recent trend at the state level are salary privacy laws, which make it illegal for employers to ask what potential hires made at their previous jobs. That’s an important protection for women who have faced pay discrimination in previous jobs that could hurt their earnings over their entire career.


Matt Carter is the editor of Credible News, which provides information that consumers need to make decisions about student loans and personal finance. We welcome comments and tips. Email: mcarter@credible.com