After treading water through two years of pandemic-related student loan forbearance, people with student debt are due to resume payments on May 1, 2022, a shift that will leave many to drown. Student debt is a crisis in the United States, and one that disproportionately impacts women and people of color.
Achieving economic mobility—or even just stability—often requires a postsecondary credential. While some unique career paths, like construction trades, offer apprenticeship as a pathway to good jobs, the vast majority of jobs with wages high enough to lift a woman out of near-poverty require higher education. Of the occupations where women’s median weekly earnings are above 150 percent of the poverty level for one adult and two children, three quarters require some form of postsecondary education, and 66 percent require a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Following the promise of economic mobility, Americans turn to loans to finance the skyrocketing cost of higher education. By 2019, the average price tag was $23,051 for public 4-year institutions and $49,981 for private 4-year institutions, up from $10,051 and $24,036, respectively, in 1985 (in 2022 dollars). This exponential hike in tuition cost far outpaces students’ ability to pay. Student debt, in turn, ballooned. There are currently 45 million Americans owing $1.7 trillion total in student loans. In 2020, the average student loan amount surpassed $30,000. Women hold about two thirds of all U.S. student loan debt.
Between 2000 and 2018, the median student debt for White borrowers doubled, but quadrupled for Black borrowers. Black women have the highest average student loan debt at $37,558, followed by Black men at $35,665. White women owe $31,346 on average, and White men $29,862. Hispanic/Latina women owe $27,029 on average, slightly less than Hispanic/Latino men at $27,452.
Women’s higher college enrollment explains some but not all of this gap. Women are 57 percent of students but 66 percent of borrowers. The racial wealth gap also contributes significantly to the debt crisis for students of color. Due to systemic racial discrimination, Black families have far less wealth to draw from for college tuition. This means Black students must borrow more, have increased difficulties paying back those debts, and hold loan debts that take up a larger proportion of their financial resources.
The burden of student debt can follow borrowers long after graduation (or in lieu of graduation), too. Twenty years after taking out student loans, the median Black borrower owes 95 percent of their debt, compared to the median White borrower who has paid off 94 percent of their debt.
Further exacerbating the college debt crisis for women and people of color is the wage gap. Across all education levels, women and people of most racial and ethnic minority groups earn less than White non-Hispanic men—in fact, the wage gap is higher at higher levels of education. In 2018, median earnings for White men with a bachelor’s degree were $62,000, compared to $50,000 for White women, $43,900 for Hispanic women, and $42,100 for Black women. Black women at the median need a bachelor’s degree to make what White men make with just a high school degree.
Women of all races and ethnicities deserve the opportunity to pursue a college degree, to have a good job that can sustain their family, and to live in financial security. Unfortunately, the broken higher education financing system keeps these goals out of reach for far too many people.
Income-driven repayment (IDR) plans have been one common response to the crisis, tying repayment amounts to income over a set period before loans are eligible for cancellation. However, the success of these programs has been limited by procedural and structural issues: 6 out of 10 borrowers enrolled in the plans fail to re-enroll because of a lack of information and a burdensome and confusing process, despite policy revisions. Student loan forgiveness plans have also had only limited reach. Of the 2 million people who became eligible for student debt cancellation in 2019 as part of IDR plans, only 32 have been granted relief. Similarly, less than 2 percent of student loan borrowers have received cancellation under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.
Research on student debt cancelation found that canceling between $50,000 and $75,000 in debt for those with household income below $100,000 or $150,000 would yield the most desirable outcomes for the populations who need it most, knocking out roughly half of all outstanding student debt and leading to substantial wealth gains, especially for Black households.
But short-term strategies aren’t enough. As public higher education remains underfunded, tuition prices rise unchecked, Pell grants are dwarfed by tuition inflation, and student loan servicers lack accountability and oversight, higher education simply cannot succeed in its role as a “great equalizer.”