Student loan debt weighs on women more heavily than it does on men.
That’s one of the peripheral but real consequences of the fact that women continue to make less than 80 cents for every dollar men earn.
According to a study from the American Association of University Women, women and men pay the same tuition and fees for their college degrees, but women are more burdened by student debt because they graduate into a pay gap they can never outrun.
The study found that 2007-08 college graduates who borrowed money, both men and women, took out around $20,000 in loans to pay for school. But in 2009, among full-time workers repaying their loans a year after graduation, almost half of women were paying at least eight percent of their earnings toward student loan debt. Just 39 percent of men did the same.
That’s because those women earned an average of $35,296, just 82 percent of the $42,918 their male counterparts earned, and typical loan payments ate up more of their income.
While the wage gap is less prominent among college-educated people, particularly among today’s younger generations, women still earn less than men. The past few decades have seen progress, but it’s been slow.
Credit: American Association of University Women
Some of the lower earnings have to do with the fact that men are more likely to major in lucrative fields like engineering, and also with the fact that men are more likely to negotiate salary than women. But some of the discrepancy, concluded the study, also has to do with outright discrimination.
It’s worth noting that one of the reasons given frequently for why women earn less — that they leave the workforce more often than men to care for children and can have trouble getting back on the same career track as the guys — is a relatively moot point when it comes to young, college-educated, mostly child-free women. That factors in later, and can increase the already existing pay gap.
So what do we do about it?
One of the suggestions the study lays out is to make pay systems transparent.
Two executive actions announced by the Obama administration on Tuesday aim to improve transparency. The announcement coincided with what activists call “Equal Pay Day.”
Specifically, the actions are aimed at preventing employers from unfairly discriminating against women because of their gender. Obama will prohibit federal contractors from retaliating against employers who discuss their compensation and ask the Department of Labor to establish new rules that require federal contractors to submit data on how much their employees earn, including data by sex and race.
The president can take such action when it comes to federal contractors, but can’t force private companies to comply. The Senate will soon consider the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would impose restrictions on companies aimed at preventing them from discriminating against women unfairly, but the bill is unlikely to clear the Republican-dominated House.
Republicans have argued that they’re not opposed to equal pay, but that they don’t think this is the right way to go about achieving it and that it will open companies up to unsubstantiated and costly lawsuits. They say there are already regulations in place to protect women and critics have pointed out that women at the White House earn an average of 88 cents for every dollar male staffers earn.
Student loan debt can cause people to delay purchasing houses and cars, even marriage, which can slow the economy. While legislation aimed at ending the wage gap and at relieving some of the student loan burden might help alleviate the pay gap, the study also lays out some steps women can take to limit its impact.
They can carefully choose which college they decide to attend and consider majors that are more likely to lead to lucrative jobs. Women can also seek union jobs that offer transparent and equitable pay to workers, and negotiate salary to increase their earnings. But as the report notes, things are unlikely to change without acknowledgement from all parties that the pay gap is an issue and one worth focusing on.
Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.