Why sexism can’t explain the Student Loan Gender gap

In February, the American Association of University Women published a report arguing that the burden of student loan debt falls unfairly on women. The report claims that women borrow more money to attend college and face more difficulties in loan repayment.

Titled “Deeper in Debt: Women and Student Loans,” the report quickly garnered coverage from national media outlets, including FortuneThe New York TimesQuartzJezebel, Refinery29, Marketwatch, and Teen Vogue. Each used the report as a bellwether of women’s lack of parity in society.

However, the study — and its implications for the student loan debate — deserves far more scrutiny.

The data presented by the AAUW show that women do indeed have more student loan debt than men, but the difference is small. Upon the completion of a four-year degree, AAUW claims that women hold about $1,500 more in student loan debt than men. Considering that the average student loan burden is about $30,000 to $40,000 in the United States, this $1,500 disparity is fairly insignificant.

It only amounts to about $375 per year — about a dollar per day.

The real trouble comes after graduation. According to the AAUW report, women are 10% more likely to have difficulties paying their loans off, and are also more likely to default. These difficulties, compounded with the fact that women are more likely to attend college in the first place, result in women holding nearly two-thirds of the nation’s student loan debt.

While this disparity may seem like the result of a cruel ploy by the patriarchy, there’s no evidence to substantiate the argument that women are hapless victims of a “misogynist” student loan system.

Loans are consensual financial agreements. While the enthusiastic and affirmative consent standard doesn’t apply here, both women and men must agree to the amount of loans they take out. Colleges cannot force students to take out loans.

Considering there is zero evidence of gender discrimination in student loan packages, it’s likely that the student loan gender gap is actually more likely due to women’s choices rather than discriminatory loan practices.

What decisions do students make that impact how much loan debt they end up with? Let’s speculate, since there’s little data on this. First: women may be more likely to use loans to help finance purchases like clothes, dorm decorations, and school supplies. While these decisions may seem small, they can add up to a few thousand dollars compounded over four years.

(From personal observation: I just moved into my senior year dorm. The room decoration disparity alone could explain much of the student loan gap, as many young men here seem content with just a mattress on the floor! Meanwhile, my female friends and I are taking multiple trips to home decor shops and buying exotic house plants.)

Second: not only might women spend more, but they also might be choosing to work less, and in fields that pay less.

There is evidence of this. Women are roughly 77% more likely to take an unpaid internship than men. Men are more likely to study STEM or finance — which lead to internships that pay better — and are thus highly likely to earn more during college. Women also are less likely to negotiate their salary, which the AAUW admits, which also leads women to earning less in college.

Less money earned, more money spent: that’s a more plausible explanation for that $1 per day gap.

Further, after college, women earn less due to the gender-pay gap — which is almost completely created by women’s choices (such as choice of career, choice to pursue a negotiated salary, and choice to pursue motherhood.)

This isn’t to say that sexism doesn’t play a role. To a certain extent, it surely does. Most women would agree with me. Women can’t solve sexism, but they CAN make better choices.

The AAUW report ends with policy recommendations. But these recommendations don’t come close to addressing what can actually solve the problem: namely, personal responsibility.

If students make smart decisions during and after college, the burden of student loan debt would be significantly less. Small decisions, such as the choice to pursue a part-time job or to eat out less can result in thousands of dollars of extra earnings for students over the course of a four-year degree.

Students: scrap the weekly trips to the local bars, find a part-time job instead. If you save up an extra $100 every week during college, you’ll end up with nearly $20,000 extra in the bank (or less in loans) after four years. It’s a neat hack, huh?

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