An unfortunate thing happened on the way to greater diversity on college campuses: As women and minorities enrolled in greater numbers, tuition increases far outpaced wage growth.
While greater diversity didn't lead to the tuition hikes, researchers are pointing to how the two trends are merging in a perfect storm of rising debt and depressed income. Women and minorities are more likely to borrow to pay for their college degrees, yet their lower lifetime pay means many will end up struggling to buy homes and sock away money. They may even have to put off getting married or having children.
The impact of college debt on women and minorities is receiving a call to arms, thanks to researchers such as the American Association of University Women (AAUW). In a recent report, it found that women are falling behind male college graduates in debt repayment because of these trends.
This doesn't affect only women or minorities who enter low-paying fields such as child care. Economists find that even female attorneys who take on large amounts of student debt may delay marriage or snub public sector work as a result.
The problems with financing a college degree may start at home. Women are less likely than men to receive family assistance to pay for college, according to a recent study from LendEDU, a marketplace for student loans. Fifty percent of women surveyed by the company said they received no help from their families, compared with 43 percent of men.
Women also report experiencing more financial difficulties after college. More than one-third who are repaying college debt said they struggle to meet their basic expenses, compared with just one-quarter of men with student loans. Women of color experience even greater hardship. Nearly six out of 10 black women with student debt said they have problems handling their essential expenses.
"Many do not think of student debt as a women's issue despite the fact that women represented 56 percent of those enrolled in American colleges and universities in fall 2016," the AAUW report noted. "This report reveals that they also take on larger student loans than do men. And because of the gender pay gap, they have less disposable income with which to repay their loans after graduating from college, so they require more time to pay back their student debt than do men."
Those dynamics boil down to a serious long-term debt problem for women, who hold almost two-thirds of the $1.3 trillion in outstanding student debt.
Compounding the problem is the gender pay gap, or when women are paid less than men for doing the same work. Even after controlling for issues such as education and experience, women earn less than their male counterparts, which can set up a lifelong earnings deficit and make it tougher for women to pay back student loans.
The problem is increasingly stubborn at the top of the wage-distribution spectrum, where women earn just 74 cents for every $1 men earn. Higher-earning women typically have bachelor's or graduate degrees, yet still suffer from lower wages than their male colleagues. Economists have pointed to a number of issues, including bias and "temporal inflexibility," or the demands that some workplaces -- such as law firms -- enforce on workers.
Student debt can have a significant impact on women with law degrees, according to recent research from Holger Sieg of the University of Pennsylvania and Yu Wang of Ryerson University. In a paper published at the National Bureau of Economic Research, they found attorneys with higher debt levels were less likely to work in the public sector. Some women may also pick less prestigious -- and cheaper -- law schools as a way to avoid accumulating debt, they noted.
"Our model is consistent with the observed fact that female lawyers with large student debt tend to delay marriage and child rearing," they wrote. "Moreover, they tend to prefer higher paying jobs in the private sector to pay off their student debt."
Policy changes that help close the gender pay gap would be a major step forward, the AAUW noted. That could mean closing loopholes in the Equal Pay Act or barring employers from asking candidates about their previous salary history, which is currently prohibited in several cities and states, including Massachusetts.