College students in America are taking on more student loan debt than ever before. In fact, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) finds that “about 44 million borrowers in the United States holds about $1.46 trillion in student debt.” Of that debt, women account for about $929 billion—which is nearly two-thirds of the total student loan balance in the United States.
Of course, there are a number of reasons that may explain the disparity between female and male student loan debt. All of this isn’t to say that if you’re a woman preparing for college, you’re automatically doomed to take on more debt than your male classmates. By understanding the factors that have led women to statistically take on more student loan debt, you can better prepare and budget for your education.
1. More Women Attend College Than Men
In recent decades, women’s enrollment in college has increased significantly. Today, women obtain about 57% of all bachelor’s degrees from American colleges and universities. By contrast, in 1976, women obtained less than 50%. Since then, the average cost of attendance at an American college/university has increased by nearly 150%. As more women sought out college degrees, the credentials were getting increasingly more expensive.
And not only are women earning more undergraduate degrees than men- a 2017 United States Census Bureau study found that women between the ages of 18 and 24 are also earning about two-thirds of the nation’s master’s degrees and a whopping 80% of doctoral degrees.
Why is this the case? A possible explanation has to do with the introduction of women into the workforce. Even 60 years ago, American women were generally expected to be caregivers. They were not encouraged to seek work outside the home—let alone establish careers for themselves. Times have changed, and today’s women are more empowered than ever to become educated and support themselves financially.
2. Women Take Out Larger Loans Than Men
According to a CNBC News article, as of 2016, “the average woman left her undergraduate educating owing $21,619, compared with $18,880 for men”. This matches up with the AAUW’s conclusion in a 2015-2016 study on student loan debt. The organization found that female college students took on student loan debt that was approximately 14% larger than men’s student loan debt. This includes undergraduate degrees, as well as graduate-level degrees such as masters and doctorates.
But why are women taking on more college debt burden than their male counterparts? A potential explanation is that families with boys tend to save more money in college funds than families with girls do. One study, in particular, found that “50% of parents who have only boys have money saved for their kids’ college, compared with just 39% of parents who have only girls.” As a result, there are fewer savings available and more of a funding gap that female students must fill using student loans.
Women are also more likely to juggle other responsibilities while completing their degree programs, such as working and/or caring for children. As a result, some women take longer to complete their degree programs and may carry more student loans by the time they graduate.
3. Women Earn Less Than Men Do
Last, but certainly not least, is the gender wage gap that exists in the United States. Not only are women graduating, on average, with more student loan debt than men—but they’re then entering into jobs where they earn less.
One Business Insider article, for instance, reports that “women earn 27% less than their male peers in the workforce”, which means it takes them longer to pay off their student loans. This falls in line with the AAUW’s statement that the average male is able to pay about 13% of his student debt each year, compared to just 10% for the average woman.
How to Borrow Wisely as a Female Student
As you can see, women hold the majority of student debt for a number of converging factors.
The good news is that if you’re a female college student (or will be in the near future), there are proactive steps you can take to minimize your student loan debt.
Do Your Research
One reason for the wage gap is that women tend to choose college majors that lead to lower-paying jobs. This isn’t to say that you should base your major only on earning potential. However, if your dream job is not a lucrative one, you may have more difficulty paying off your student loans. ook into programs that may be less expensive, such as state schools, and apply to scholarship programs for your chosen major. On the flipside, if your chosen major is likely to lead to a higher income, it may be worth the extra investment.
One of the best things you can do is to explore your borrowing options in-depth to make sure you’re taking out loans that suit your needs.
Completing your degree program in a timely manner can also help you cut down on debt. The longer you’re in school, the longer you’re likely to be taking out loans and accruing interest. Meet with an academic advisor regularly to make sure you’re on track to graduate on time.
Meanwhile, you can reduce the amount you need to borrow by taking on a part-time job, applying to a paid internship, or even selling unwanted items online. Bringing in additional income can help you pay your way through school while borrowing less.
If you haven’t already, be sure to apply for grants and scholarships on a regular basis. That’s money towards your education that you’ll never have to pay back, and there are plenty of opportunities out there. In fact, there are even some grants, scholarships, and fellowships that are specifically for female students.
Once you graduate, don’t be afraid to look into refinancing as a means of cutting down on your payments and saving money on interest.
The Bottom Line on Female Student Debt
While most students need to borrow at least some money to pay their way through school, a little research, planning, and foresight can go a long way in reducing your total student loan balance by the time you graduate. Simply being a woman doesn’t mean you have to take on more debt than your male peers—but it could require a bit more strategic planning on your part to minimize your debt. From there, you can enter your degree program with confidence and take on each academic year head-on.