College graduates in America, on the whole, owe more than $1.7 trillion in student debt, but women owe the larger percentage of that overall debt — an astounding $929 billion as of 2020.
If those numbers weren’t disturbing enough, a new study from The American Association of University Women (AAUW) has revealed that Black women are the hardest hit of all groups when it comes to paying for higher education. According to the report, the average Black female graduate carries about 20% more student debt than white female graduates. To put that figure in perspective, researchers estimate that “one year after graduation, white women owe $33,851 in undergraduate loans, on average, while Black women owe an average of $41,466.”
CNBC’s Abigail Johnson Hess has reported that graduate school further exacerbates the problem, creating even greater differences in how much women across different races owe.
“Among those with graduate school debt, white women are estimated to owe $56,098, on average, while Black women owe closer to $75,085,” Johnson Hess said.
In an interview with CNBC, Kim Churches, CEO of the AAUW, told Johnson Hess that “while there are more Black women enrolled in higher education than ever before, it’s deeply concerning that Black women hold so much more student debt than their white counterparts. Sadly, though, it’s unsurprising: It’s a stark reflection of the wide racial wealth gap in our country that leaves Black families with less money to contribute to higher education.”
Academics have long recognized the disparity in the cost of education for men and women of different races. Laura Hamilton, professor of sociology at the University of California, Merced and co-author of a recent report on student debt cancellation publishing at the Roosevelt Institute, told CNBC that the discrepancy is a sad reminder of where things currently stand in America.
“Black women are much more likely to attend college than Black men, and they are subject to significant racial wealth gap disparities, which means that they need to pull out more money to attend college,” Hamilton said.
In addition to the disparity in debt between Black and white graduates, researchers studying the impact of college degrees on women’s finances have also uncovered another startling fact: women must obtain an additional degree in order to earn equal pay to men.
According to Johnson Hess, researchers at the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce estimated that “a woman with a bachelor’s degree earns $61,000 per year on average, roughly equivalent to that of a man with an associate’s degree.”
“Women with master’s degrees make on average what a man with a bachelor’s degree makes and a woman with a bachelor’s degree would make on average what a man with an associate’s degree makes,” Nicole Smith, chief economist at the Georgetown CEW, revealed in an interview with CNBC. “So, in terms of repayment of those loans, you have women who are taking out higher and higher loans and their ability to repay is influenced by their lower wages.”
Churches said this is yet “another example of how deeply rooted systemic racism continues to disadvantage Black households — a reminder of how important it is to act quickly to correct the situation.”
“Making certain Black women can comfortably access and afford that education should be a top policy priority,” Church told Johnson Hess. “Our entire society pays a high price for this kind of inequity, and it’s imperative we work to correct it.”