Every year, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) releases a new report illustrating how women are disproportionately impacted by student loan debt. The average woman graduates with $2,739 more in federal loans than the average male graduate, they argue. But while suggestions to fix this gender debt gap have typically targeted lawmakers, students are left fumbling in the dark.
When college students leave campus through graduation or dropping out, the debt they incurred hangs heavy over their heads, especially for young women. The average woman will graduate with $21,619 in loans according to the AAUW, but that number is likely too low because it does not include private loans and credit card debt.
So, what’s a young woman to do?
While the AAUW points to policy proposals such as expanded Pell Grants and equal pay legislation, women likely won’t be helped by these proposals anytime soon. Instead of waiting for government help, there are a few things college students can do to fight back. Small decisions can turn into big savings over four years.
1. Start by choosing an affordable school.
According to the College Board, the average public university will cost students nearly $57,000 over four years. Private universities typically have a higher price tag: roughly $105,000. But depending on your family’s financial situation, the private school might be less expensive.
I went to Barnard College in New York City, where four years of tuition, room, board, and fees was estimated to be $285,000. But four years at my state flagship, Ohio State University, was estimated to be only $108,000.
However, after scholarships were taken into account, Ohio State University would have charged about $5,000 more annually than Barnard. Before you choose a school, you should research your options. The sticker price never tells the full story.
2. Work during the school year and summer break.
Though the extra $2,739 in federal loans for women seem small, the AAUW warns that women take longer to pay back their loans, and default at a higher rate than men do. But over four years, that $2,739 gap amounts to $684 per year, or less than $2 per day. The average woman, earning $8 an hour, could pay off the gap with about two hours of work per week. And if she works more during college and puts that money toward loans instead of clothes or partying, she could graduate owing even less.
For many students, who start their first job earning about $8 to $10 an hour, a part-time job might not seem worthwhile. But during a four-year degree the extra work adds up, especially as students typically see pay hikes as they gain more experience.
3. Spend money cautiously.
There’s mixed evidence over whether women spend more than men. But it’s easy to understand how young women in college might be likely to spend more than men—at least on some things.
Women often pay more for dorm decor, furniture, clothing, accessories, and diet trends like juice cleanses and salad bars, oftentimes without realizing it. These small decisions may only add $10 or $20 extra per week, but over four years, it can become thousands.
Figuring out exactly why women pay more is difficult because the causes of the loan gap are complex. One contributing factor could be because they are less likely to leave college before earning a degree, which necessarily creates the need to borrow more.
And because a higher proportion of women attend college than men, women in college are also more likely to be from a low-income or first-generation background than men, which means they tend to rely on loans more frequently, as the AAUW points out.
Furthermore, women may also make different choices as to which college they attend. Perhaps women are more likely to attend more prestigious colleges, while men may prefer a more cost-effective school. We don’t know for sure. This topic hasn’t been well-researched yet, so it is poorly understood.
And finally, women and men may make different life choices during college. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While a woman who takes an unpaid internship during college may graduate with higher debt, that internship may help her career down the line. So, while the loan gap may be seen as a burden, perhaps this instead represents women’s greater freedom to choose school and work opportunities.
Nearly 70 percent of students leave college with some type of debt. But the choices students make during college—especially regarding whether to work, spend, and save—will ultimately dictate how much, or how little, they’ll struggle after college.
The typical female student won’t be able to outrun loans entirely. But if she is judicious while in school, her total loan burden won’t have to be more than those of her male classmates—and could even be less.
Toni Airaksinen is a journalist focusing on Title IX, First Amendment, and due process issues. She graduated from Barnard College in 2018 and is a columnist for PJ Media and a writer for Youth Radio. Follow her on Twitter @Toni_Airaksinen.