For recent college graduates, carrying multiple student loans adding up to tens of thousands of dollars is the new normal. Nearly 70 percent of college seniors who graduated in 2014 had student loan debt, and they owed an average of $28,950. Nearly 7 million of those with student loan debt didn’t make a single payment to their federal student loans last year, and the numbers for private loans are even worse. But male college graduates working full time are able to pay off these loans far more quickly than their female counterparts.
AAUW’s analysis of recent data from the U.S. Department of Education indicates that the gender pay gap affects women’s ability to pay off their student loans promptly. According to our research report Graduating to a Pay Gap, one year out of college women working full time are paid, on average, just 82 percent of what their male counterparts are paid. Between 2009 and 2012, men who graduated in the 2007–08 school year paid off an average of 44 percent of their student debt, while women in that group managed to pay off only 33 percent of their student debt. The gap in student loan repayment is even larger for black and Hispanic women with college degrees; they paid off less than 10 percent of their debt in the same time period despite working full time. This is not surprising since the gender pay gap is even larger for black and Hispanic women, even among college graduates.
More women than men — 53 percent compared with 39 percent — are contributing more money to their student debt payments than a typical individual can reasonably afford. As a result, women are less able to save for retirement, buy a car, or invest in a home. The gap in debt repayment may also make it more difficult for women to take risks that could pay off in the long run, like changing job sectors or starting a business, further contributing to the pay gap as women move through the workforce.
Although higher education improves earnings for both women and men, it does not help them equally. A 7 percent gender pay gap persists for recent female college graduates even after accounting for college major, occupation, economic sector, hours worked, months unemployed since graduation, GPA, type of undergraduate institution, institutional selectivity, age, geographical region, and marital status. For women with college degrees, especially black and Hispanic women, the gender pay gap means that student loan debt may hang over their heads for many more years to come.