Student debt haunts women for years longer than it stays with men, research suggests. A report from the American Association of University Women shows that women take longer to pay off their education loans, which imposes a heavier burden on their finances years after they graduate. Black and Hispanic women in particular earn much less than other groups over time, and end up struggling the most to get rid of the debt that financed their college educations.
In the past two decades, young women have vaulted past men in American higher education, by some metrics. They have become more likely to enroll in college than men, earned higher grades, and finished school more frequently than male peers. Still, highly educated women continue to earn less over time, and that stubborn pay gap becomes an even heavier burden for people who leave school with thousands of dollars in unpaid loans, the AAUW report, released on Monday, shows.
“People don’t believe that gender is still an issue. A lot of people think this is something of the past, that women seem to be doing well in education,” said Catherine Hill, the researcher at AAUW who wrote the report. “If you look at debt as a percentage of salary, it becomes clear that they aren’t in good shape.”
On average, women who graduated college in 2008 paid back 33 percent of their student loans by 2012, according to AAUW’s analysis of Department of Education data. Men repaid 44 percent of their debt in that period. Black and Hispanic women fared the worst of any group four years out of college. Black women had reduced their debt by only 9 percent in 2012, and Hispanic women had erased a mere 3 percent of their total loan bill. The AAUW looked at people who were working at least 35 hours per week and who had not gone to graduate school after college.
Part of the reason that student debt isn’t an equal opportunity offender may be that women, particularly those of color, are paid less. Women in the class of 2008 earned nearly $7,000 less than men one year after they graduated college. That gap widened to $11,000 by 2012. The study didn't include data on graduates' majors in college, which have been shown to affect earnings.
Black women started life after college in the worst financial situation of any group. They took out a lot of debt to attend school—an average of $26,535—and took home the smallest paychecks of any group. In 2009 they earned $34,102 on average, meaning that, upon graduation, student loans took up a whopping 78 percent of their income. Three years later, their salary had increased by just 23 percent, and the debt still made up over half of their total income. Hispanic women appeared to have the most trouble making a dent in their bills, paying off just $600 in student loans from 2009 to 2012.
Hill noted that women with loans end up paying more for college than men because they take longer to repay their debt, which accumulates interest over time.
“Young women feel privileged, they feel very accomplished, they are sought after in many ways,” said Hill. “But it does not seem to be paying off in earnings.”