Women have more student loan debt than men, and it’s not because of the gender wage gap

College student loan debt in the U.S. is nearing $1.8 trillion dollars.

While the Biden administration is controversially trying to take care of this mountain of debt through loan forgiveness,…

College student loan debt in the U.S. is nearing $1.8 trillion dollars.

While the Biden administration is controversially trying to take care of this mountain of debt through loan forgiveness, it’s worth noting women carry a disproportionate amount of college debt – 66% to be exact.

Granted, this is partly explained by women making up a higher percentage of the college population than men.

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center estimates at least 55% of undergraduate students and 59% of graduate students are female. And in the fall of 2021, the National Center for Education Statistics reported 58% of undergraduate students were women.

But even after factoring for higher enrollment, women are still carrying a higher proportion of debt than their male peers.

Men are more likely to borrow $10,000 or less, reported the Education Data Initiative, while women more frequently borrow $40,000 or more.

Among women, black and Asian women have the highest average student loans ($70-75,000). White and Hispanic women have the lowest average ($56,000).

Women also pay off their loans at a slower rate on average than men.

But none of that fully explains why women borrow and retain comparatively more student debt.

Some factors may include women being overrepresented at for-profit colleges, receiving less financial support from family, or their propensity to seek more advanced – and therefore more expensive – degrees.  

And naturally, some analysts blame the “gender wage gap,” surmising women can’t pay off loans as quickly because they aren’t paid equally. 

But is discrimination really the root cause of women’s financial burdens? 

“Women are flexibility maximizers”  

It’s commonly said women earn 82 cents for every dollar a man earns.  

And while that’s technically true, labor economist Angela Dills explains why it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison.  

“[Women] are much more likely to major in more caring professions like education and health and less likely to major in quantitative fields like physics or engineering or chemistry, which tend to also pay a whole lot better,” Dills explained in a 2023 interview.  

“Men on average are significantly more likely to go into dangerous occupations, whether that’s joining the military, being a firefighter, a police officer, whatever it might be,” she continued. “[They’re] getting compensated for bearing that risk as a worker.” 

According to the International Labour Organization, women worldwide dominate fields related to personal care, health and teaching. Men gravitate towards construction and manufacturing, military, and STEM jobs. 

In addition to different choices of occupation, men and women tend to seek different work-life balances. 

“If we look at young workers – new to the labor force workers – the gender gap is almost non-existent,” Dills added. “Most of this gap is happening at childbearing age.” 

And when it comes down to the numbers, women invest less time into their jobs than men. 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women employed full-time worked an average of 7.8 hours a day, while men worked 8.3 hours. 

Women are more likely to be part-time workers, and they retire two years earlier on average than men. And working partially or completely from home is more common among women (41%) than men (28%). 

Such statistics show men and women simply have different priorities. 

“Women in surveys are flexibility maximizers, meaning they want more flexibility, and they also want more fulfillment,” explained Patrice Onwuka, director for the Independent Women’s Forum Center for Economic Opportunity. “Whereas men are absolutely pay maximizers, they want more money.” 

Onwuka credited the pandemic for helping women realize fulfillment and flexibility are more important.  

“[That’s why] the workforce participation rate for women has not recovered to pre-pandemic levels,” she told The Lion. “Moms are choosing to stay at home to raise their children because they recognized during the pandemic, ‘No, this is more fulfilling to me than going to a job behind a desk.” 

But how does this gender priority gap affect student loans?  

“There are other options”  

Onwuka told The Lion she thinks managing student loan debt requires students – especially females – to be thoughtful about their choices.  

“Wanting to become a social worker in the community, that’s fantastic and it’s rewarding and fulfilling, but it may not give you the high pay or high enough pay to even pay back your student loans,” she explained. 

Nearly 85% of social workers in the U.S. are women.  

That’s not to say women shouldn’t take out loans or go to college. But doing so will always come with “trade-offs.”  

“There’s a huge educational gap and frankly an opportunity to really tell young women, ‘Yeah, you’ve got lots of options out there, but also keep in the back of your mind what coming out of college is going to look like, when 10 years after college is going to mean,” Onwuka said. 

“The decisions that women make around motherhood impact everything related to employment,” she continued. “It’s important that women have lots of options and choices, but they have to recognize those choices are trade-offs.” 

Onwuka criticized the “every kid to college model” of K-12 education, which fails to recognize and inform students of the many pathways to success available to them.  

“There are incentives for high schools to talk about the percentage of their graduates who are going on to college,” she explained. “That seems like a nice metric, but does every student that goes on to college – are they going to be successful? Are they going to graduate on time? Are they going to graduate and get a job in the field that they studied? 

“I think the K-12 model has a responsibility to young people to say that there are lots of different options,” she added. “College is one and it can be a great option for you, but there are other options.” 

One of the ways employers and policymakers can help is by scaling back “degree inflation” – the practice of requiring a college degree even for jobs that don’t really need it.  

While companies can continue making male-dominated professions more welcoming to women – and vice versa – Dills thinks people should accept men and women making different choices.  

“We could just be okay with the fact that I [as a woman] work fewer hours, I enjoy my family and the time I spend doing my leisure hobbies, whatever they might be,” Dills concluded. “And I’m okay if that means I get paid a little bit less because there are other things in my life that matter [besides] my work.”