Americans carry an estimated $1.5 trillion in student loan debt, and nearly two-thirds of that amount, or $929 billion, is held by women.
The figures come from the American Association of University Women. The association also found that Black women finish their undergraduate education with more debt than all other graduates. Meanwhile, women who attend for-profit colleges wind up owing far more than those who attend public or private four-year schools.
There could be several explanations as to why women leave school with more debt. Chief among them is a persistent gender wage gap, the number of women seeking four-year degrees compared to men, and the comparative levels of financial literacy.
The Gender Wage Gap
Women make up 57% of undergraduate students in the United States. An estimated 60% of all students seeking a Master's degree are women. This is largely because women may need one more degree to close the earnings gap with men, according to a report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. These demographics in part clarify the unbalanced numbers regarding student loan debt.
"Women are [statistically] more educated than men and seek out more graduate school degrees," said Alyssa Schaefer, Chief Marketing Officer of online lending platform Laurel Road. "You'd think that wages follow that, but they don't."
Georgetown estimated that the gender wage gap was the widest in the highest paying fields, with men earning 17% to 43% more than women, depending on the occupation. This inequality results in women having less disposable income to pay back loans, and taking longer to do so.
The Intersectional Wage Gap
Black women have an even more difficult time repaying loans due to both gender and racial discrimination. The American Association of University Women estimated Black women leave school with $37,588 in average debt, the highest of any group. This compared to $31,346 for white women and $29,862 for white men. And note: the average student loan figures don't include students who manage to graduate with no debt at all.
Black women may graduate with higher debt because they prioritize educational attainment and job passions over high salaries.
"Women of color typically tend to pursue careers in education, social work, and psychology, which pay less and require master's or doctoral degrees," said Mary Eschelbach Hansen, professor of economics at American University. "They do this because they believe these fields are important and meaningful, despite the cost of succeeding in them."
Cost of Debt and Financial Literacy
Annamaria Lusardi, the academic director of the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center at The George Washington University School of Business, believed women might leave school with more debt because they were less informed about student loans and wind up borrowing more money than necessary, often at higher interest rates.
A 2017 study co-authored by Lusardi found that just 30% of women globally could answer questions about finances and were considered to be financially literate. This compared to 35% for men. In advanced economies, financial literacy improves, though a gender gap remains: 59% of men could adequately answer questions on financial topics, compared to 51% of women.
"We ask young people to make important and consequential decisions about their education and how to finance it without giving them the proper knowledge that is required to make those decisions," Lusardi said. "It is imperative that we equip the young with the basic skills that are needed to thrive in today's society."