Nation & World

College debt dogs women more than men

And that has long-term financial consequences

Chicago Tribune/TNS

Khallilah Beecham-Watkins (standing) counsels a group of teen students this past Thursday during a meeting of Upward Bound at the Carter G. Woodson Library on Chicago’s South Side. She was giving a presentation on paying for college. She suffers herself from accumulated student loan debt.
Chicago Tribune/TNS Khallilah Beecham-Watkins (standing) counsels a group of teen students this past Thursday during a meeting of Upward Bound at the Carter G. Woodson Library on Chicago’s South Side. She was giving a presentation on paying for college. She suffers herself from accumulated student loan debt.

CHICAGO — It’s a struggle each month for Khallilah Beecham-Watkins to balance her student loan payment with the expense of supporting a young family.

The 28-year-old education program specialist for a Chicago not-for-profit aspires to pay off her own college debt before her infant daughter eventually begins a four-year degree.

But with a monthly child care bill of $750, there’s little extra to put toward her loan payments, and even less to put toward the new home she wants to buy with her husband, who is also repaying student loans.

“I’ve had to put a lot of my dreams on hold,” the South Side resident said.

Beecham-Watkins’ story is consistent with many young women today, who hold nearly two-thirds of the nation’s outstanding student loan debt, according to the American Association of University Women, a not-for-profit that researches women’s equity in higher education and the workforce.

Many women struggle to repay their student debt, in part because they are often paid less than their male peers.

The debt can have a ripple effect on their financial health, affecting their credit and savings, and delaying milestones such as purchasing a home and starting a family.

To be sure, men also graduate with college debt. But the debt that women graduate with often proves more damaging long-term — in part because they also shoulder additional expenses such as child care.

Some experts — Ann Logue of the University of Illinois at Chicago, for example — also say women are less likely than men to live at home after graduation.

Those added expenses make it difficult for them to pay off the debt, accumulate early savings and find solid financial footing.

“You think of education as the great equalizer, but it’s actually continuing to put women behind,” said Kimberly Churches, CEO of the American Association of University Women.

There are several reasons why student debt plagues women. Chief among them is the pay gap.

Women also increasingly are entering male-dominated fields, such as finance, engineering and computer sciences, where the pay gap is largest.

According to Payscale, a company that collects salary and compensation data, women in finance and insurance earn 73 cents for every dollar a male in the same industry earns. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women overall earn about 80 percent of what men earn. Minority women earn even less.

Antiquated social norms held by older generations also may contribute to the debt that female students accumulate.

According to a 2017 survey from T. Rowe Price, an asset-management company, 17 percent of parents of boys said they would cover the entire cost of college, compared with just 8 percent of parents with only daughters.

The student debt that women sometimes have trouble paying off can ripple throughout their finances.

Thirty-nine percent of women aged 18 to 34 do not pay their bills on time, subjecting them to late fees or other penalty charges and exacerbating their debt, according to the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.

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The same organization also found that 70 percent of men ages 18 to 34 have savings beyond retirement plans, compared with just 56 percent of women the same age.

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