It's no secret that large student loan debt is a problem for many people. Americans collectively owe more in student loans than the gross domestic product (GDP) of almost every country, and that amount is only growing bigger over time. Taking out debt is a solid way to finance a higher education and can even help a recent graduate establish a healthy credit profile. However, the most economically vulnerable are often at risk of being unable to keep up with their payments. When we further analyze student loan debt by gender, it quickly becomes apparent that the majority of this financial burden isn't being shouldered by men.

Key Takeaways

  • In addition to affecting more than 44 million Americans and totaling $1.7 trillion, student loan debt is the second-highest source of household debt, following housing itself.
  • According to the American Association of University Women (AAUW), women hold nearly two-thirds of all U.S. student loan debt, or approximately $929 billion.
  • At $41,466.05 on average, Black women owe the largest amount of debt, followed by White, Hispanic/Latinx, and Asian borrowers.
  • Female borrowers typically require more education to earn a wage equal to less-educated men. In fact, in order to exceed the lifetime earnings of a male graduate with just an associate degree, a woman may need at least a master's degree.
  • According to the AAUW, most women will face a gendered wage gap as soon as they graduate, which typically worsens as they age. As a result, even if women had the same amount of debt as their male counterparts, the lack of equal pay would still make it more difficult to rid themselves of their financial burdens

Understanding Student Loan Debt

Student loan debt is what's owed to a lender that provides funding for higher education. This money is often primarily used to pay tuition, but it can also be used for school supplies, basic necessities, and anything else a borrower purchases during their academic career. Most students will be unable to pay for college without financial aid, even if they receive funding from parents and/or scholarships, due to how the price of higher education has escalated over time.

While it's possible to find a well-paid job after graduation, many aren't so lucky—or don't work in fields with high salaries—which will limit their ability to pay down their debt. This can lead to a loan becoming delinquent due to late payments, a situation that can lead to the loan ending up in default. As a result, many struggling graduates can take a major hit to their credit score and/or credit report not long after completing their education.

In addition to affecting more than 44 million Americans and totaling $1.7 trillion, student loan debt is the second-highest source of household debt. College attendance is currently at a record high, but the cost of a higher education has more than doubled compared to the prior generation. Meantime, household incomes have remained relatively static. This difficult reality falls especially hard on women. This group faces numerous additional challenges that result in both higher loan balances and lower ability to pay down their debt.

What causes these gender discrepancies? Our research throws light on some of the issues that disadvantage women and also looks at what we could find on issues faced by nonbinary/gender non-conforming borrowers and on differences between cisgender and transgender borrowers. Note that the names of certain groups used below may not be entirely consistent throughout the article in order to match terminology used by our sources (e.g., although Investopedia prefers the identifier Latinx, this article uses terms such as "Hispanic/Latinx" that represent how particular researchers reported information). Also note that most of these studies are not done annually, so we will be reporting data from different years.

Student Debt by Gender Breakdown

For starters, it's important to know that the majority of undergraduate college students today are women: 56% in fall 2016, according to the American Association of University Women (AAUW). So it's not surprising that women held nearly two-thirds of all U.S. student loan debt that same year, or approximately $833 billion.

But women's debt burden isn't equal. According to the AAUW, women graduating with a bachelor's degree in 2012 owed $1,453 more on average than their male counterparts. They also owed an average of $31,276 in student debt in 2017, compared to $29,790 for men.

Not only do they owe more, they also face a gendered wage gap from the very beginning: Women graduating with a bachelor's degree in 2017 expected to earn $35,338 on average, which equates to approximately 81% of what men anticipated earning. As a result, even if women had the same amount of debt as their male counterparts, the lack of equal pay would still make it more difficult to rid themselves of their financial burdens.

In fact, female borrowers typically require more education to earn a wage equal to less-educated men. In order to exceed the lifetime earnings of a male graduate with just an associate degree, a woman may need to earn at least a master's degree. Those who receive a graduate education to counteract pay gaps will ultimately take on even more debt and pay more in the long run. Female students borrowed $51,035 on average for graduate school in 2017, which can increase to an average of $61,626 a year after graduation thanks to interest.

Even if women had the same amount of debt as their male counterparts, the lack of equal pay would still make it more difficult to pay off these loans. When we remember that women on average owe more on student loans than men, it's easy to see how the wage and debt gaps reinforce one another. This frequently forces female borrowers to delay saving for retirement, purchasing a house, and/or starting their own business. Adding to this is the fact that women are also the most likely to experience general financial difficulties, with 34% reporting an inability to afford basic necessities in 2019.

The Intersection of Gender and Race

The student loan debt burden isn't shared equally among all women borrowers. At $37,558, Black women had the highest average student loan debt in 2017, followed by White women at $31,346. Both Black and White women owed more student loan debt than their male counterparts. Conversely, Hispanic/Latinx women owed slightly less ($423) than men in this same group. Similarly, not only did Asian women have the lowest debt amount than other female borrowers, they also owed slightly less than Asian men.

That unequal start doesn't get any better at one year out of college, the AAUW reports. At $41,466.05 on average, Black women owed the largest amount of debt, followed by White, Hispanic/Latinx, and Asian borrowers. Although there was an increase across all categories in 2017, one group experienced their debt rising faster than others: There was a roughly $2,000 increase to the student loan debt balances of White, Hispanic/Latinx, and Asian women, but a nearly $4,000 increase for Black borrowers. This dataset also shows that female Pacific Islander/Hawaiian Native and American Indian or Alaska Native borrowers (at $38,747.44 and $36,184.40, respectively) owed more than White borrowers.

Larger student debt levels, the racial wealth gap—as well as unequal access to and outcomes within higher education—are other socioeconomic factors that reinforce each other and negatively impact women of color. In 2019, the Center for Responsible lending reported that African American women and Latinas had both the highest average student loan debt balances and were paid 61 and 53 cents, respectively, for every dollar earned by White men.

How College Type Affects Debt

The type of college attended also affects debt. The AAUW found that women attending public four-year institutions on average had $29,611 in student loan debt in 2017. Following this were debt loads from private nonprofit four-year and for-profit four-year universities, at an average of $32,086 and $42,778, respectively.

Although all of these amounts are high, the difference between the costs of public four-year institutions and for-profit four-year ones is stark. Though they may not enroll as many students as public universities, for-profit institutions disproportionately enroll women, particularly Black women and/or single mothers. The existence of student lending enables these universities to find people who can borrow enough to pay a higher price for their degrees.

Women accounted for 64% of the student body at for-profit universities in 2018, compared to 54% at public two‐year colleges.

The Mom Factor

Although childcare won't be a concern for every student, it's a major economic factor for millions of women. According to the Center for Responsible Lending, approximately 25% of all college students in 2018 were parents with dependent children; more than 40% of parents were single mothers.

Students who are also mothers face additional barriers to repaying debt, reports the AAUW. One year after graduation, women in 2017 could expect to spend $920 on housing (plus $163 for utilities), $396 on vehicle payments, $387 on food, $113 on medical expenses. The 16% of women who are mothers had an additional $520 for childcare each month on average.

Adding in a $307 monthly student loan payment can make it difficult, if not impossible, to both cover all these basic necessities and pay down debt, much less save any money. Even those who can afford to repay on time may still experience their loan balances increasing over time. This happens when loan interest is accruing and capitalizing on their loans, outpacing any minimum payments. For example, if a student takes advantage of the six-month grace period after graduation before starting repayment, that unpaid interest is added to their loan.

The scarcity of on-campus childcare, which met just 5% of the demand in 2018, makes things especially difficult for parents still attending school.

Since they are also one of the groups often targeted by for-profit universities—putting them in the highest debt group—single mothers are more likely to drop out of college due to all of these elements. This, of course, leaves them with burdensome student loan debt and nothing to show for it.

Differences in Repayment

According to the AAUW, women tended to repay their loans at a slower rate than men in 2020, due in part to the wage gap between the two groups. College-educated, full-time female workers generally made 26% less than their male counterparts. This gap has been shown to increase over time—starting at 18% one year following graduation and rising to 20% four years later.

As previously discussed, having a lower wage means having less available income to pay down debt. From one to four years following graduation, women had paid off 31% of their outstanding debt, compared to the 38% men paid off. Black and Hispanic women were significantly further behind during this same time period, at 12% and 18%, respectively. Additionally, the AAUW found that 57% of Black female borrowers in 2008–2012 faced financial difficulties while paying down their debt, compared to 44%, 30%, and 28% for Hispanic, Asian, and White women, respectively.

The discrepancies in student loan repayment can also be seen in default rates. From 2008–2012, AAUW found that, among bachelor's degree graduates, these rates were slightly higher for women than men and much higher for Black and Hispanic women than they were for their White and Asian counterparts. These results were similar when accounting for students enrolled in an additional degree program.

Each kind of university also produces different default rates. For-profit institutions enrolled a significantly larger number of borrowers who defaulted within two years after graduation. For-profit universities also disproportionately enroll women, which further raises women's risk of default.

Beyond the Binary

There is very little student debt information about borrowers who identify outside of the gender binary, often because they are consolidated within broader LGBT+ debt statistics.

The Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, however, reports that 51% of transgender adults take out federal student loans to finance their education, compared to 35.9% and 27.9% of LBQ cisgender women and GBQ cisgender male borrowers.

Looking deeper, federal student loans don't require credit checks, but private student loans generally do. Transgender persons have a greater risk of experiencing credit rejection, given that 35 U.S. states and territories lack laws prohibiting discrimination in lending based on gender identity.

Additionally, a 2017 survey conducted by the Center for the Study of Student Life found that the 244 participants who identified as either transgender men or gender non-conforming were more likely to take out a loan to pay for college (8.2%), somewhat more likely to have student loan debt (3.9%), and slightly more likely to rely on financial assistance from family members to pay for college expenses (2.2%) than their cisgender counterparts. Transgender men or gender non-conforming borrowers were also slightly more likely to fund their education via federal loans (3.7%), scholarships (2.1%), and parent income (0.9%) than cisgender students.

The National Transgender Discrimination Survey—which surveyed nearly 6,500 transgender respondents attending undergrad, graduate school, professional school, or technical school—found that, in addition to a lack of financial aid, participants experienced several other barriers in higher education in 2017, such as harassment and financial issues related to transition. These challenges can lead to students dropping out, which, as we've previously established, would leave those who did receive financial aid with a large debt balance and no degree to help pay it off.

Adding to these financial challenges is the fact that—despite the data from the Center for the Study of Student life reported above—parents may rescind promises to finance the higher education of their transgender and/or nonbinary children, should they even offer to do so in the first place. Further compounding these difficult circumstances are numerous other inequalities, such as employment discrimination and a pay gap.

The Bottom Line

From the start of 2021, searches for "student loan forgiveness" and "student loan cancellation" have increased exponentially. Debt forgiveness is certainly possible, and it may be the key to restoring economic mobility and financial security to those most burdened by high student debt balances. The ACLU is one of several groups that have called upon the Biden administration to cancel $50,000 per borrower, while others are seeking full debt forgiveness.

Forgiving student loans is a controversial idea for some. What's more, loan forgiveness would only be a stop-gap measure without fixing the underlying lending system. At the very least, steps should be taken to eliminate the gendered wage gaps and other discriminatory factors that worsen the unequal student debt burden that women and people of color face each day.

The negative effects of student debt are not just financial. A 2020 report found that there was a positive association between a person's debt balance and the amount of stress they feel regarding it. The authors also reported that this anxiety correlates with poor health and symptoms of depression among students, particularly Black women.

What Is the Average Amount of Student Loan Debt per Borrower?

The average student loan debt for college graduates in 2016 was $37,172 per person, which was projected to have increased to over $38,000 by the following year.

Which Gender Has the Most Student Loan Debt?

Collectively, women owed approximately $833 billion in 2016, which is nearly two-thirds of all U.S. student loan debt. On an individual level, women also owed an average of $31,276 in student debt in 2017, whereas their male counterparts owed $29,790.

How Else Does Student Loan Debt Differ Demographically?

In 2017, Black women had the highest average student loan debt at $37,558. Second was White women, who owed $31,346 on average. Black and White men owed $35,665 and $29,862, respectively, which is less than their female counterparts. Hispanic/Latinx women owed $27,029 on average, while their male counterparts owed slightly more at $27,452. Finally, $25,252, Asian women had the lowest debt burden compared to any other female borrowers, and Asian men owed $25,507.