Like most Americans, Amy Eichberger wasn’t raised by parents who could easily afford her college tuition. Her dad died before she was born, and her mom lived paycheck to paycheck. Eichberger, by her own account, wasn’t the best student in high school and struggled to get scholarships.
So, she had to take out loans.
This was in the early 1990s. Tuition for the community college in her Connecticut town cost no more than a few hundred bucks a semester. But upon getting her associate’s degree and thriving in an academic setting, she decided to level up, getting her bachelor’s in public health. Then, facing lackluster job prospects, she pursued a master’s in health care administration. Eventually, she went back to school again, completing a two-year graduate program required of her current job.
All in all, she owed $349,769.18 for that education.
Americans now hold $1.7 trillion in student loan debt. Nearly two-thirds of that money – at least $929 billion – is owed by women.
Eichberger was in search of economic mobility – of moving from working to middle class. And indeed, her opportunities expanded as her credentials grew. Yet tuition rates soared at the same time: The average cost of attendance at a four-year college nearly tripled between 1980 and 2019. Eichberger’s debt snowballed at every turn in her academic journey, as did her expenses. She had a daughter, and became a single mother, while getting her master’s.
“I took out loans for everything because I’m not making $1 million a year,” said Eichberger, 51. “It just piled on, just kept piling on.”
The debt Eichberger was left with – more than her house is worth – is exceptional. On average, borrowers with graduate degrees have roughly $103,000 in student loans. But the circumstances she faced are not that unusual, particularly among the country’s women.
According to research published in 2021 by the American Association of University Women, women with bachelor’s degrees graduate with an average of $2,700 more in student loan debt than their male peers. That gap compounds over time, as women take two years longer on average to pay off their debt, the interest adding up all the while.
As borrowers await the Supreme Court’s decision on a plan to provide mass student debt forgiveness, USA TODAY examined what’s behind the gender imbalances in the amount that borrowers take out and in their ability to pay those loans back.
First, what’s going on with student loans?
President Joe Biden has made it a top priority to forgive up to $20,000 in student loan debt for middle- and low-income Americans. The conservative-majority U.S. Supreme Court is now deliberating two cases that challenge Biden’s plan, with most of its right-leaning justices signaling clear skepticism of the plan’s merits and the administration’s authority in granting relief.
The status of various student loan-related programs and initiatives rests on the high court’s decision. Under former President Donald Trump, for example, the Education Department, citing the pandemic’s emergency circumstances issued a moratorium on student loan repayments. The country’s tens of millions of borrowers haven’t had to make repayments in the years since, with Biden repeatedly extending the pause.
But those repayments could return as soon as this summer, pending the Supreme Court’s ruling. A separate lawsuit is pushing for a quicker end to the payment pause.
Then last week, Senate Republicans introduced a bill that would ban Biden’s loan forgiveness plan, even while it’s on hold and before the Supreme Court.
Advocates worry about what all of this means for women in particular.
OK, so why do women have more student debt than men?
Thanks largely to her advanced education, including a certificate program she completed relatively recently, Eichberger secured a white-collar HR job at the local hospital. But it wasn’t enough to cover the nearly $5,000-a-month she owed for her loans.
She wound up getting a second job doing manual labor in an Amazon warehouse on Saturdays and Sundays to help pay off the debt and afford necessities such as groceries. The pandemic had just hit and the moratorium on repayments had begun, but Eichberger was preparing for their imminent return.
Women, and women of color in particular, are paid less than similarly educated men for the same jobs. So, they are more likely to return to school to bolster their resumes and earn a salary that can support all their expenses, which are often greater than that of men.
“Women are out there getting degrees because women are required on so many levels to bring credentials to the table,” said Gloria Blackwell, CEO of the AAUW. “That’s why that proportion of student debt is so high – these women have to constantly prove themselves over and over again.”
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Consider these statistics:
- Women who graduate with a bachelor’s degree earn roughly $35,000 on average – just 81% of what their male peers make.
- A year after college, women hold a little more than $31,000 in student loan debt, which works out to a $307 monthly payment. Yet the average woman a year out of college spends more than $1,300 on housing and car payments a month, plus another $520 on child care expenses for the 16% of recent female graduates who are moms. “Adding in that $307 student loan payment makes it difficult – if not downright impossible – to make ends meet,” the AAUW report notes.
- Black women ages 25-64 who hold a bachelor’s degree or higher and work full time had a median salary of $60,681 in 2020, according to the Education Trust’s research. The median salary for similarly educated white men was $91,805, while it was $75,329 for Black men and $67,324 for white women.
- The average Black woman needs at least a bachelor’s degree to earn a higher salary than an average white man with no college degree.
Eichberger didn’t get paid maternity leave so she had to go into forbearance during that time, still accruing interest. Child care needs also forced her to take lower-paying jobs than she would otherwise so she could have a flexible schedule.
“It is basically stretching out your loan, many, many more years with many, many more years of interest being tacked on,” she said.
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For Black women, ‘more debt does not equate to a higher salary’
College costs have soared over the past several decades, far outpacing inflation and increases in financial aid such as Pell Grants that are reserved for low-income students. Declining state funding for public higher-education institutions is a key reason for the ballooning in costs.
Will this make a difference? The Pell Grant amount will rise by $500 in 2023.
In 1980, according to research by the nonprofit Education Trust, the maximum Pell Grant covered more than half of the cost of a public four-year college. By the 2020-21 school year, the maximum Pell Grant covered just 28%.
Students without the means have been forced to take out more student loans as a result. The challenges are particularly pronounced among women of color, who are far more likely than their male peers to attend college but far less likely than white women to be able to afford it.
“The notion is that you get a degree so you can be competitive in the workforce,” said Brittani Williams, who co-authored the Education Trust brief and is herself a Black woman borrower and mother in the midst of completing her PhD. But for women, and especially those of color, “more debt does not equate to a higher salary.”
Still, Williams doesn’t question the worth of her college studies. “For those of us who hold degrees, even with the student loan debt, we see greater opportunity than those who for whatever extenuating reason could not complete that degree,” she said. “I hope we don’t lose that ideal” of higher education as a path to the middle class for women and people of color.
For Williams and Blackwell, bringing college costs down is key to solving the student loan crisis.
“At the end of the day, college should be affordable for everyone – not just for an elite few,” Blackwell said. “And women, in particular women of color, shouldn’t have to sacrifice their financial future to get the education that certainly is a potential pathway for equal economic opportunity.”
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Confusion over Public Service Loan Forgiveness
Biden is also working to reduce the burden of debt on borrowers eligible for public service loan forgiveness and income-driven repayment.
Public-service loan forgiveness, or PSLF, relieves the student debt for people such as teachers, military members, first responders and certain healthcare workers after they’ve spent a decade on the job. But the rules have never been clear, and the administration of the program has always been messy.
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Despite working in eligible roles for more than a quarter century, Eichberger for her part long struggled to have her debt forgiven through the program. She says she’d submit forms and never hear back.
“I was like, ‘Okay, I’m just stuck with this debt. It’s going to be here until I die. My kid’s going to inherit it,’” Eichberger said.
“You live in denial but it was always sitting over there. It was so daunting – that’s your life. And then you second guess that (the degrees) were worth it but you can’t do anything about it now.”
Last year, with the help of a student loan coaching service offered through her work called EdAssist, she resubmitted a PSLF application. She didn’t think it would work, but in January she received a life-changing letter: Her nearly $350,000 in student debt had been erased. She owed $0.
The revelation has since become bittersweet. Eichberger’s 26-year-old daughter – an aspiring sign language interpreter – tried college for a semester before dropping out. She told Eichberger it was her fear of loans, having seen what they did to her mother and their family, that convinced her to give up.
“This is probably what hurts me the worst,” Eichberger said. “She saw my struggle, which made her not want to further her education.”
Contact Alia Wong at (202) 507-2256 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @aliaemily.