Why America’s student debt is a women’s issue

Courtesy of Samantha Morgan

Samantha Morgan and her family.

About four months after graduating from college in 2016, Samantha Morgan received a letter from her student loan company that threw her into a panic. In just two short months she would need to put nearly $500 a month to pay back her student loans.

Though she felt lucky to have a partner who contributed to the family finances and supported her emotionally, her struggle with student debt felt decidedly different from her husband’s. In those months, Morgan, now 28, found her loans only compounded the challenges she faced as a new mom.

“There are all of these things that put you out of the workforce and make you financially disadvantaged — if you have to go on maternity leave — and if you’re trying to pay back your loans in that time, it’s just insane,” she said.

Women hold nearly two-thirds of the student debt

Student debt isn’t typically part of the conversation when we talk about women’s rights. But stories like Morgan’s and the data bolster the argument that it should be. Women hold the bulk — nearly two-thirds — of the nation’s outstanding student debt, according to the American Association of University Women, a nonprofit advocating for women in education. When they enter college, they typically take on more debt and when they leave they struggle more to pay it back.

“Student debt affects women on both sides of their experience,” said Kevin Miller, a senior researcher at AAUW.

Terrence Horan/MarketWatch

The economic challenges women face broadly play a role in why our nation’s student debt problem affects women disproportionately. The gulf between women’s and men’s earnings is well-documented and that holds true even for women who complete higher levels of education. In fact, women often need an extra degree — and so have to pay more money or take on more debt — to earn as much as men.

Part of the explanation: Women are more likely to pursue lower-paying fields and professions. But that doesn’t explain all of the gap in wages between men and women, said Nicole Smith, the chief economist at Georgetown University’s Center on Education an the Workforce.

The challenges women face paying off their debt means that it may take them longer to save for a home, start a business or contribute to the economy in other ways, Miller said.

“The burden of student debt is felt much more intensely by someone who has a lower income relative to repaying that student loan,” Smith said.

Michele Sleighel knows that challenge first hand. The 30-year-old is weighing the next steps in her life, including where to settle and whether to continue working in nonprofits. Her roughly $27,000 in student loans plays a major part in that decision.

“The way that I’m feeling now, is I’m going to walk away at least for a couple of years from what I’m really passionate about in order to get a financial base that will get me stable,” she said.

Sleighel said she’s interested in having children one day, but the combination of her student debt and modest income makes her wonder whether she’ll be able to afford to. She said she views the challenges women face with their student loans as one example of the ways in which the “patriarchy is still oppressive.”

“We don’t value women’s work,” Sleighel said. Indeed, some researchers have argued that one of the reasons female-dominated fields pay less is precisely because they’re dominated by women. “It’s absolutely shocking that we’re not freaking out about the fact that women are holding so much more of that debt.”

Her debt may be putting her future in danger. She doesn’t have a retirement account set up in part because she’s spending so much money servicing the more than $50,000 in student loans she obtained to attend college and graduate school.

Originally, she had hoped to have the debt wiped away after 10 years of payments through a forgiveness program for public servants. But she discovered after several years of making payments and working in nonprofits that she would be denied forgiveness on a technicality.

Steimer-Kind also wonders if she’ll finish paying of her debt before she retires. “You have a goal in mind and now the light at the end of the tunnel has gone out.”

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