Who shoulders most of nation's $1.4 trillion in student debt? Women

Women owe about $890 billion of the country's $1.48 trillion student loan debt, nearly double the $490 billion owed by men, placing them at a financial disadvantage as they begin their careers, according to a recently released report from the American Association of University Women (AAUW).

The study, which analyzed data from the U.S. Department Education from the 2015-2016 school year, also found that women graduating with bachelor's degree owe on average $2,700 more in student loans than men do. Women, who account for 56 percent of enrolled college students, are far more likely than men to graduate owing money -- 71 percent for female grads vs. 66 percent for male grads, according to the AAUW.

Black women graduate with the most college debt, averaging about $30,400, topping the roughly $22,000 white women owe and the $19,500 white men owe. 

Furthermore, women with college degrees and full-time jobs tend to earn less money to pay down their student debt, making on average 26 percent less than their male colleagues. The picture is even bleaker for black and Latina women with bachelor's degrees and full-time jobs: They earn on average 37 percent and 34 percent less, respectively. than white men and, as a result, often struggle to repay their loans, the study says.

"It's a real problem and it's a problem with a distinct gender component," said Anne Hedgepath, the AAUW's director of federal policy. "It [also] is taking women longer to repay their student debt for a number of reasons, like the gender pay gap in the workforce. Obviously, it has an impact on women's economic security, so it can certainly have an influence on their ability to pay rent or their health care."

To address the gender gap in student borrowing, AAUW has called for the U.S. Congress to strengthen the Pell Grant program as part of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. The advocacy group also wants the government to increase aid to colleges and universities, provide loan forgiveness for students who pursue public service careers, and provide income-based repayment options to keep higher education affordable.

Worries about student debt are also affecting decisions about having children. A recent Morning Consult/New York Times survey of 1,858 men and women found that more than half said they planned to have fewer children than their parents. When pressed on the issue, 49 percent of respondents said they were worried about the economy, 44 percent said they couldn't afford more children, and 43 percent said they delayed having children because of worries about financial stability. (Respondents could offer multiple reasons.)

College-educated women earn about 90 percent as much as men at age 25 and about 55 percent at age 45, according to a recent study.

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    Jonathan Berr is an award-winning journalist and podcaster based in New Jersey whose main focus is on business and economic issues.