New College Debt Record Tops $1.5 Trillion and Harms Women Especially

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Women graduating from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell
Source: Katharine Webster, “Record Number of Graduates Includes First Doctorates from Manning School”, May 13, 2017

The debate over whether college is worth it frequently centers on college cost and debt. New numbers from the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System reveal a record $1.5 trillion in student loan debt in the United States. Women hold nearly two thirds of that debt, about $900 billion.

Women hold more of the debt because women take on initial student loan balances that are 14% higher than men’s. They also outnumber men in undergraduate programs and are more likely to go to graduate school, incurring still more debt. A survey of 1,000 millennials found that 42% of women have more than $30,000 in college debt, compared to 27% of men.

At graduation, women are $1,500 more in debt than their male counterparts, on average. Women are also less likely to get as much help as men from their parents in paying for college, leaving women to foot more of the bill on their own.

Despite women earning 57% of bachelor’s degrees, women are paid less than men. On average, a woman with a bachelor’s degree earns about $61,000, which is about the same as a man with an associate’s degree. A 2018 report from Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce found this disparity with higher degrees as well, and offered the example that, over a lifetime, women with a business bachelor’s degree will earn $1.1 million less than a man with the same degree.

Women are more likely than men to believe it will take 20 or more years to pay off their student loan debt, possibly influenced by pay disparities. Asian-American women earn 87 cents per every dollar earned by men, while white women earn 79 cents per dollar, and the gap widens to 63 cents for black women, 57 cents for Native American women, and 54 cents for Latina women. The American Association of University Women found that, within the past year, 34% of all women and 57% of black women who were paying down student loans were unable to pay for essential expenses.

Thanks in part to college debt, women are more likely to delay marriage and children. The median age for marriage is now 27 years old for women, compared to 20 in 1960. For the first time, more women are having children when they are in their 30s than in their 20s. Women are also having fewer children: an average of 1.8 compared to 3.7 in 1960. A Mar. 2018 survey found that half of women said that student loan debt affected their decisions about having children.


American Association of University Women, “Women’s Student Debt Crisis in the United States,” (accessed May 23, 2018)

Jillian Berman, “Why America’s Student Debt Is a Women’s Issue,”, Mar. 10, 2018

Board of Governors for the Federal Reserve System, “Consumer Credit Outstanding (Levels),”, May 7, 2018

Anthony P. Carnevale, Nicole Smith, and Artem Gulish, “Women Can’t Win: Despite Making Educational Gains and Pursuing High-Wage Majors, Women Still Earn Less Than Men,”, 2018

Jessica Dickler, “Student Loan Debt Is a Hurdle for Many Would-Be Mothers,”, May 22, 2018

Abigail Hess, “American Women Hold Two-Thirds of All Student Debt–Here’s Why,”, Mar. 14, 2018

P.R. Lockhart, “Tuesday Is Equal Pay Day. It Doesn’t Apply to Most Women of Color,”, Apr. 10, 2018