Never before have we seen so many representatives talking about what it means to have a generation graduating with crippling student debt. Women, specifically newly elected representatives such as Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Ilhan Omar, are telling the country that student debt can no longer be swept under the rug.
“People deserve a future unencumbered by the burden of student debt, and the money they save will be immediately put back into our economy,” said Ilhan Omar just weeks after becoming one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress. “Student debt is nothing but a continuation of class divides that persist because of structural inequity.”
It’s not only a continuation of class divides—student debt reflects the country’s gender gap. Women currently hold two-thirds of the country’s $1.5 trillion student-loan debt.
That women hold the majority of student debt, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) says, is an indication that women are enrolling in colleges and universities at higher rates than men. In addition, the AAUW discovered that women have a harder time paying off their student loans than men.
The latter is due largely to the gender pay gap, which, despite the Equal Pay Act, is fueled by status-quo economics—an unchecked market that reproduces the structural inequalities it claims to erase. In other words, women are paid less than men for the same amount and type of work simply for being a woman instead of a man.
This system has many implications in the day-to-day life of women and how they balance their student debt. However, the research in this area was lacking until recently. A new report titled Buried in Debt by Student Debt Crisis and Summer shows that, indeed, women with student debt are struggling. Out of 7,095 participants in this study, 4,809 or 69 percent were women, which corresponds to the 66 percent national average of female student-debt holders.
“With no end in sight, my student debt will hold me back from savings, investing, buying a home, and contributing to local nonprofits for 15 more years,” said Katie, one of thousands of woman who responded to the survey. “My debt will ultimately impact what I will be able to provide for my children, which I hope to have far before the end of my balance is paid off.”
Buried in Debt found that 44.75 percent of women said that making their next payment will be a struggle, and 65.19 percent of women said they have never had a relative help with their monthly payments.
What’s more are the ordinary life experiences their student debt has prevented them from having: 79.95 percent aren’t able to save for retirement, 59.89 percent don’t go on vacations, and 55.29 percent are unable to buy homes. In addition, about a quarter of these women said that they had at least delayed having children, if not thrown out the idea entirely, because of their student debt. “I am trying to plan for retirement and trying to build a savings account, but my student loans leave me with very minimal extra money each month for groceries and car insurance, much less savings or retirement,” said another survey respondent named Alexis.
Although we found similar statistics from the men who participated in this report, men are not facing the same obstacles in the workplace and economy as women. Most importantly, men are not stopped short by glass ceilings and walls, whereas women struggle to shatter them every day.
In many instances, women may be considered “too bossy” in situations that require her to lead, or “too emotional” in situations that require her to be passionate. For a man, this means he is “assertive” as a leader and “dedicated” to his work. Translate this into pay raises, and you find that men are 5 percent more likely to get a pay raise—a small number that adds up to a big bonus over a lifetime.
When looking at the 2016 US Census, the effects of these glass ceilings and walls are clear: On average, women earn 80.5 cents for every dollar a man earns, and this doesn’t even describe the impacts of race and ethnicity on a woman’s earnings. In addition, women earn more than $10,000 less than men in a year. That’s $10,000 that could be going towards paying off women’s student loans.
“It is very stressful knowing I cannot pay my debt. I am a single parent, receiving very little child support and also care for my mother who is on disability,” read another survey response.
With women earning only 80.5 percent of what men make, it’s no wonder paying off student debt is harder. Throw a family and kids into the mix, and the challenge becomes even more complicated: Women with children are about 79 percent less likely to be recommended for rehire.
When student debt is increasing every day, it is imperative that the people affected most, the women in our society, speak up about their everyday hardships their indebtedness engenders.