Gender-related challenges exist, especially for many women of color, but there are financial resources that can help.
The American Association of University Women heads up a comprehensive survey each year that looks closely at the status of women and student loan debt. The survey often reveals sobering findings, and the 2021 update is no different.
According to this most recent report, women owe about two-thirds of the nation's $1.7 trillion in outstanding student loans.
Women of color carry a disproportionate burden. The study, Deeper in Debt: Women & Student Loans, reports that Black women have about 20% more student loan debt than white women. Researchers found that one year after graduation, Black women on average owe more than other women with undergraduate student loans, an average of $41,466 compared with $38,747 for Pacific Islander and Hawaiian women, $36,184 for American Indian and Alaska Native women, $33,852 for white women, $29,302 for Hispanic women and $27,607 Asian women.
Black women on average also lead other women in cumulative student loan debt one year after graduate school, at $75,086, compared with white women, who had the lowest average cumulative student loan debt among women after grad school at $56,099.
The lack of quality and affordable child care is especially hard on minority women, many of whom report financial difficulties trying to repay their student loans, according to the study. As a result, minority mothers in particular are unable to finish college in many cases. A report by the Center for American Progress notes that lack of child care is repeated generationally, with many mothers unable to complete school, seek new employment opportunities and increase their earnings to provide for their families because they can't get affordable and reliable child care.
Factors Affecting Student Loan Repayment By Women
This year's AAUW survey findings highlight the impact of the coronavirus pandemic when it comes to women's finances and student loan debt. During the first weeks of the pandemic last year, "women filed nearly 59% of unemployment claims, despite being only half of the labor force," according to the study. Researchers anticipate that this will contribute to the trend of women carrying higher student loan debt.
Wage inequalities also add to the challenges. The AAUW survey notes that it takes women about two years longer than men to pay off their student loan debt. This could partly be because women still earn less on average than men.
Prior to the pandemic, according to the study, women in their first year out of college were expected to earn 81% of what their male counterparts were paid. A longer time carrying student debt means more interest paid – reducing available resources to spend on significant milestones like buying a home, starting a family, launching a business or saving for retirement.
Compounding the challenge is rising college tuition and associated education expenses. The cost of college has more than doubled over the past generation even as "household incomes have barely budged," the survey report noted.
Resources to Reduce Women's Student Loan Debt
Women feeling the financial pressure are wise to explore the resources available to them to minimize and manage student loan debt. There are grants and scholarships that can help reduce the amount of student loans taken out or, in other cases, help those already challenged by student loan debt.
For nontraditional students, for example, The Charlotte W. Newcombe Foundation provides scholarships to "mature" students over the age of 25, sending grants directly to partner colleges and universities for chosen students. The typical age of recipients is 35, and the majority work full time or part time and volunteer.
The Jeannette Rankin Women's Scholarship Fund provides scholarships and support for low-income U.S. women ages 35 and older to help them build better lives through postsecondary education. The website notes that the fund's definition of women who may apply includes "trans and nonbinary people, intersex and agender people, and queer people."
Another resource to explore is the GoGirl! Grants program of The Girlfriend Factor, a California organization dedicated to women's empowerment. Applicants must be 25 years or older and demonstrate financial need. These women must also be working toward a four-year degree or a certificate in their chosen occupation and live and go to school in California's Coachella Valley.
Women entering science, technology, engineering or math fields – or enrolled in STEM-related programs – have many options to explore when it comes to assistance with paying for college. Two examples are The BHW Scholarship in the amount of $3,000, and funding from The Society of Women Engineers, which in 2020 gave out more than 250 new and renewed scholarships totaling more than $1 million. The Pathways to Science initiative of the nonprofit Institute for Broadening Participation also provides funding opportunities geared toward women pursuing STEM coursework.
In addition, consider federal grants based on financial need. The Pell Grant, for instance, is awarded to undergraduate students who demonstrate exceptional financial need. To apply for the Pell Grant, applicants must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.