Why Women Hold the Majority of Student Loan Debt in America

June 5, 2018, 4:23 PM UTC

America’s student loan debt problem is nearing a full-blown crisis.

Outstanding student debt hit $1.5 trillion for the first time ever, and it doesn’t seem to be getting better. In fact, it appears that the trend is only accelerating when you consider that student debt accounted for $600 billion 10 years ago.

There are approximately 44 million borrowers in the United States, and the majority of them are women, according to a new report from the American Association of University Women (AAUW). Women represented 56% of those enrolled in American colleges and universities in fall 2016, but the report reveals that women also take on more (and larger) student loans than men.

In total, women hold nearly two-thirds of the outstanding student debt in America, nearly $900 billion as of mid-2018, the report says.

AAUW estimates that women working full-time with college degrees make 26% less than their male counterparts, though the gap is somewhat smaller immediately after college. In turn, lower pay means less income to devote to debt repayment and more interest over time.

In a commentary piece for Fortune, veteran investor Jim Rogers and former academic dean Robert Craig Baum said the higher education bubble, which is one-sixth of the U.S. economy, “will likely burst with the force of all previous catastrophes combined.”

They write, “College and university budgets rely on inflated real estate investment, deny the short- and long-term effects of student loan defaults, accept the rise in tuition above the rate of inflation as normal, and expect a downsized part-time faculty to help subsidize inflated tenure track and endowed tenure budgetary lines.”

Increasingly, economists are pointing to the for-profit college industry, which has been accused of using inflated job placement and graduation rates to lure borrowers to take on debt. According to the AAUW report, for-profit institutions disproportionately enroll women, people of color, low-income students, and members and former members of the U.S. military.

“For-profit institutions use advertising and high-pressure recruitment tactics to woo students and their student aid and loan money, but debt outcomes for students at these institutions are particularly dismal,” the report says. “Even after accounting for student demographics, for-profit institutions have low completion rates and high default rates — a matter of serious concern for student loan borrowers, researchers, and policymakers.”