Just as women are fighting to preserve ownership of their bodies and for equal protection under the law, galvanized by Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, they must demand that our elected officials support our financial freedoms as well. That spirit goes beyond stopping one man’s elevation to the Supreme Court; it’s a call to place women’s interests, voices, and needs front and center in the national conversation.
Women in the United States hold over $890 billion in student-loan debt. That’s nearly two-thirds of America’s $1.5 trillion student-debt total. There are more women enrolled in college than their male counterparts, so it may seem fair that women would, on average, hold more student debt. However, women are still faced with the historic and present-day reality of the gender pay gap, making the ability to pay back any student debt more difficult. Because of that enduring pay gap and the greater difficulty in repaying loans that it represents, women are less able to fully participate and compete in their educational or professional fields of choice. This allows their male counterparts the ability to take more prestigious and higher paying positions, further marginalizing and burdening female students.
More women are enrolling in colleges and universities, investing in their educations, and pursuing graduate degrees than ever before. Despite this progress, women continue to be underpaid for their work compared to their male counterparts. Even worse, student-loan debt disproportionately burdens women of color, who earn less than white men and women and hold more of the debt. According to a recent study by the American Association of University Women, women are not only more likely to take on debt while in college; they also pay back their debt more slowly than male students. Black women are more likely to take on student debt than any other demographic. This unequal burden of debt on women, and their inability to pay it off once graduated, poses a tangible threat to the capacity of women to fully compete and succeed in their personal and professional lives.
While women are burdened with this debt after graduation, it also affects them during their time in college. Many students are not aware of exactly what taking out student loans means in the long run, only to find out the true cost years later. This was my experience. When I started college, I had no idea what taking on debt would financially entail. I applied for financial aid not really knowing what it was, and that was that. But then I overheard someone talking about subsidized loans and how they ran out of FAFSA money.
I had been surprised that this person hadn’t been going to school for a long time—their financial status had simply changed, and the government would not give them loans for school any longer. I was appalled. What if this happened to me someday? Did I have to worry about student loans? Would I be graduating with debt?
As I pursue a bachelor’s degree in gender and women’s studies, with hopes of continuing to law school, I’m also working two jobs and doing as many extracurricular activities as I can for scholarships. Despite this, if I want to accomplish a bachelor’s and law school, I will eventually have to take out loans. I have learned to accept this fact.
The decision to have children can put women at an even more significant disadvantage in terms of job opportunities, salary increases, and promotions. The vicious cycle continues: Choosing to start a family further hinders women from succeeding financially and paying off the student loans they accrued while getting their education. For my colleague and co-author Samantha Morgan, this was her reality. “My husband was able to use the birth of our son as a reason to advance in his professional life,” she said. “It was a reason for a promotion and a raise. For a woman, the birth of a child does not result in a raise but, more often, time off from work and a decrease in pay. For myself, it was a reason to work fewer hours and ultimately take time off from working altogether.”
After graduating college, Morgan’s husband was able to begin his professional career sooner than she was, which allowed him to advance more quickly at work. Because of his increased salary, her husband is unable to qualify for income-based repayment, forcing him to pay the standard monthly amount—but this also means he will pay his debt off in 10 years. Because Morgan’s salary is lower and qualifies her for income-based repayment, she says her loans won’t be paid off for the next 20 years.
“As a white woman, I am in a position of privilege, as women of color face an even greater disproportionate economic burden,” she said. “We must use our voices to end the student-debt crisis as a tool to dismantle the systematic oppression of women that keeps us from fully competing and thriving in education and professional fields.”
Student debt has a significant impact on the financial and personal wellness of women all over the country. One way we can all work together is by voting for representatives who will be advocates for borrowers. We must vote to elect representatives that will reduce this gender bias and economic burden on women. A 2017 study by the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University revealed that women’s voter-turnout rate has exceeded men’s in every presidential election since 1980. There are more women registered to vote, and women have cast millions more votes than men. Women, an outright majority of the population, have the ability to elect representatives that will work to reduce the harm that student debt inflicts on all students, women in particular.
As a woman and a feminist, I will not be letting student loans or the gender pay gap scare me into pursuing careers that I don’t want, renting apartments for the rest of my life because I can’t afford a house, or skimping on basic human needs such as eating every day. Someday, I will be on the front lines ensuring economic justice for women, and voting to end the student-debt crisis is how I choose to start my journey.