Women are starting their adult financial lives in the hole. And student loans are partly to blame.
Student loans delay significant life events for both men and women. Paying off college means millennials are buying houses, getting married, and having kids later in life. But the impact is greater, and much longer term for women.
On average, women in the U.S. carry more student loan debt, and take longer to pay it off, than men. If we want to reduce the gender wealth gap, we have to acknowledge the extra burden of student loans for women.
The Weight of Student Loans is Heavier for Women
Americans hold almost 1.5 trillion in student debt. But women represent two-thirds of that enormous number.
Female students take on more debt than their male counterparts in every level of education. On average across degree levels, women in college have initial student loan balances that are 14% higher than men’s.
As with any social issue, identifying one lever to pull to fix the problem is almost impossible. But here are three reasons women hold more student debt:
Women get less help
It may be hard to believe, but daughters are still getting less help in paying for college than sons. One study by T. Rowe Price found that in 75% of boy-only households, parents placed saving for kids’ college at a higher priority than saving for retirement. In girl-only homes, that figure was just 60%.
As such, parents of only girls were less likely to have money saved for their child’s college. Barely 35% of households with only girls had money saved for college, compared to 50% of boy households. And boy parents were more than twice as likely to be willing to foot the whole bill.
Despite women representing 56% of all college graduates, it appears that some old school gender norms still run deep for many parents.
Women are less likely to understand their options
Financing options when applying to college are far from straightforward. But a recent study by Laurel Road found a stark difference in how well millennial men and women feel they understood their options. In fact, millennial women were more than three times as likely to say they did not completely understand their financing choices during the application process.
Not understanding the implications and requirements of debt has a significant impact on how much debt you are willing to take on. And that lack of education carries on beyond graduation.
Women take on more debt and are less likely to begin paying that debt off while still in school before interest kicks in for federal loans. Also, they are almost 40% less likely to ease their debt burden by refinancing after graduation.
Whether the financial literacy gap stems back to parents or education systems that treat girls and boys differently, it is hard to say. However, we need to do a better job of explaining to all students the long-term impact of the debts they take on for college
Women graduate to lower paying jobs
The gender pay gap is, unfortunately, alive and well. Research suggests that women need one more degree to make the same amount of money as a male counterpart. For instance, a woman with a bachelors degree earns, on average, the same amount as a man with an associates degree.
This wage gap not only drives women to take on more debt as they pursue higher levels of education to increase their earnings potential, but it also makes it harder to pay back those loans. A recent study by Student Loan Hero found that women were more than twice as likely to view their student loan debt as unmanageable. Women are also 60% more likely to need to cut non-essential spending to cover student loans, according to another study by Laurel Road.
On average, it takes women two more years to pay off their student debt than men. When time is your most valuable asset in wealth building, those two years make a big difference.
So, what is the impact of higher student loan balances for women?
Student loans diminish women’s financial confidence
When it comes to money, women are more risk-averse and less confident than men. This may occur, in part, from stress and regret from higher student loan burdens early in a woman’s adult life.
Growing research in behavioral economics shows that an array of psychological factors can impact people’s financial decision making. When someone isn’t financially confident, they are more likely to make poor financial decisions. Even when they have the necessary knowledge to make better choices.
Debt, low credit scores, and a personal belief that you have made a poor financial decision in the past are all factors that lower financial confidence. For many women, student loans make them check all three of these boxes.
Women are mentally burdened by student debt. The higher costs, considerable difficulty in making ends meet, and sense of failure or regret for those who no longer use their degree (or never did) can make a woman feel unaccomplished with money. In fact, research by Student Loan Hero has determined that almost 50% of women regret taking out loans for college. And that they would do things differently if they could rewind the clock.
Questioning or regretting the most significant financial decision of your life to date is a surefire way to diminish one’s confidence. And it could be one reason why women have a considerable confidence gap when it comes to financial knowledge.
Stnce has studied this issue and found that 41% of women score high on financial literacy tests, but report low confidence in their abilities. Even more concerning, not even one woman in the study was confident enough to say she got all the questions right – even when she did.
This questioning of our own knowledge makes women less likely to invest or engage on financial topics. A considerable factor in the persistence of the gender wealth gap.
Reducing the student loan impact for women
When it comes to fighting the fight against student loans, education is essential. Educating parents about the hidden gender biases that may be playing into their college savings. Helping high school students better understand their college financing options. Teaching college graduates their options with regards to debt refinancing and paydown.
But for women already struggling with student loans, financial confidence may be more critical than financial literacy education . Because all the knowledge in the world will not change future behaviors if we do not have the courage to trust our own decisions.
Jen Hemphill, an Accredited Financial Counselor® and Money Confidence Coach, works specifically with women on issues of financial confidence. In speaking to her about how to build financial confidence for women, she had a few top tips.
First, she recommended women own their financial confidence. Say over and over that you are financially confident until you believe it. Hemphill says, “Knowledge is power. Reading personal finance books, blogs, listening to podcasts will also help with this.”
But it doesn’t end there. Women should be resourceful and take real action on some “quick win” financial goals. Then take the time to celebrate those achievements, big and small. Hemphill says, “The sheer act of celebrating will no doubt instantly boost your confidence levels.”
Finally, women should focus on surrounding themselves with people who have the financial confidence they desire. Hemphill pulled no punches in recommending pulling back from friends with bad money habits.
“If you are finding yourself with people who are talking how broke they are or how they can’t afford this, you need to run. Instead, you need to surround yourself with those who have an abundant mindset, someone who is taking action in improving their finances, someone who is not afraid of getting messy with their finances. ”
If someone is struggling to find their financially savvy tribe offline; Facebook groups, online forums, and personal finance blogs and podcasts written by and for women can be an excellent resource. A place to talk-the-talk and see that financial success is genuinely attainable.
In the end, student loans are only one piece of a long financial game. Whether we regret our college choices or wouldn’t change a thing, we need to give ourselves permission to move forward. Find more ways to learn and engage on financial topics, start investing early, and prepare for the future. It is our best hope of starting to close the gender wealth gap.
The research was sponsored by Laurel Road and conducted by Wakefield Research. For help with your market research and opinion survey needs, contact Wakefield Research today.