Stop Pretending Student Debt Is An Economic Issue — It's Really A Women's Crisis

by Karine Jean-Pierre

I'm not going to lie, I like to argue. And you know what? I'm good at it. I take on Donald Trump and his terrible policies for a living, and I'm not afraid to go head-to-head with any of his minions. And do you know why I'm not scared? I worked in the Obama White House. I spent years of my life crafting policies that protected the most vulnerable Americans. Every man, woman, and child in this country should have a shot at the American dream, and I'll be damned if I let anyone convince me otherwise.

By now you’ve probably heard that America is facing a student debt crisis. Young people in this country owe more than $1.4 trillion, which is more than both credit card and car debt combined. The average college grad leaves school $30,000 in the hole and 42 million Americans have some kind of student debt. And I should know: I’m one of those 42 million.

While politicians and pundits have finally started talking about student debt, there’s one thing they’re still not talking about: how student debt disproportionately affects women. Student debt isn’t just an economic issue —it’s a women’s rights issue.

Yes, student debt affects everyone, no matter their gender. But student debt disproportionately affects women, and we need to start talking about that. And not just for people like me, who will be paying off their loans, month after month, year after year, until we’re senior citizens. It’s important for the next generation, too. It’s absolutely insane that I’m starting a college savings account for my 3-year-old daughter while still chipping away at my own loans.

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People need college degrees to get good jobs in this country, but they don’t need to start their lives with thousands of dollars of debt — and women should not have bear the brunt of this stupid system. Student debt is a feminist issue and here’s how you can convince anyone of the truth:

Argument #1: Student debt affects everyone equally.

It’s true, the student debt crisis is widespread. But it’s not true that student debt affects everyone equally. First off, women make up a disproportionate number of college students: In 2016, 56 percent of all students enrolled in America’s colleges and universities were women. But that’s not all. On average, women also take out larger loans in order to finance the cost of college. So not only are more women going to school, when they get there, they’re also having to take on larger loans than men to pay for it.

And here’s the other part: for-profit colleges. These are colleges and universities that only exist to make money — and boy, do they make a lot of money. Their CEOs rake in millions of dollars every year, while their schools typically spend more money on advertising than on students. These schools are known for their shady business practices, and some, like Corinthian Colleges, have been shut down and forced to repay students whom they preyed upon. So how does this connect to women? For-profits have figured out that women are a lucrative education demographic, and are now specifically targeting vulnerable women to get them to enroll. And that’s bad news for women, since for-profit schools have notoriously high dropout rates, and can charge exorbitant amounts for degrees that often aren’t taken seriously by employers.

Between for-profit colleges, larger numbers of women enrolling in colleges and universities in general, and women having to take out more loans than men to graduate, it’s clear that student debt doesn’t affect everyone equally.

Argument #2: Women can pay loans back as quickly as men do, so why does it matter?

There’s actually this pesky little thing called the gender wage gap, which, because of the sexism embedded in our society, means that women get paid less for doing the very same work men do. The common statistic is that for every dollar a man makes, a woman makes 80 cents. That might just seem like a 20 cent gap, but over time, it adds up. And while the 80 cents stat doesn’t take into account the fact that more women work in lower-paying fields, when you look at men and women who work exactly the same jobs, women are still paid less. And of course, the fact that women are working jobs that are paid less isn’t a coincidence — it’s a symptom of a society that systematically devalues women’s contributions and stereotypically “feminine” jobs like cleaning or being a receptionist. That’s bad enough, but if you’re a black or Hispanic woman, you’re likely making even less; studies show black women make 63 cents for every dollar a white man makes, and Hispanic and Latina women just 54 cents.

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Why does this all matter? Because when women earn less, that means they have less money to pay off their loans. For every cent women fail to earn because of sexism, that’s another cent they can’t put toward paying off their loans. And, because student loans accrue interest, it’s really more than just one cent — it’s more like one cent, plus interest. It’s a vicious cycle: Women make less money so they have less money to pay off their loans, because they can’t pay off their loans as quickly, the interest adds and adds, meaning women have even larger loans to pay off — which they still struggle to do, because they’re still making less than they should be.

This isn’t just theory, either. A recent study from the American Association of University Women showed that because of the gender wage gap and the higher number of women taking out loans, women hold two-thirds of all student debt in this country. Let me repeat that: Women hold two-thirds of all the student debt in America. That’s a higher percent than you can get most members of Congress to agree on anymore. It’s definitely higher than Donald Trump’s approval ratings (and probably higher than his last few combined, too). The point is this: It’s really, really high. And the reason it’s so high is because women, for reasons outside their control, are less able to pay back their student loans, which is why student debt is a women’s issue.

Argument #3: Alright, alright, student debt is a women’s issue. But we're working on it, right?

If only that were the case. Under Betsy DeVos, the Department of Education isn’t fixing the student debt crisis for anyone, including women — it’s making it worse.

Here’s a quick and not at all exhaustive rundown of everything Betsy DeVos has done or tried to do since becoming secretary of education and how it worsens — not helps — the student debt crisis:

  • The DeVos-Trump budget threatens huge cuts to really important programs that keep folks out of even deeper debt. The budget cuts the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, a critical program that helps people who enter public service like teachers and nurses keep their monthly payments manageable. It’d knock out billions from the Pell grant program, which helps low-income students afford college. And it might raise repayment rates for people on income-driven repayment programs.
  • DeVos also took action that made it harder for schools to deal with people who commit sexual assault (and the majority of sexual assault survivors are, of course, women). With a higher likelihood of your assailant staying on campus, you might drop out of school — leaving you deep in debt and without a college degree to help you get a good-paying job to pay it off.
  • DeVos and Trump also spearheaded a plan to reduce the number of federal student loan servicers (the companies that ensure your loan is paid) to one single servicer, reducing competition and making it easier for servicers to get away with shady customer service, like accidentally being overcharged but not being able to get in touch with anyone to fix it. The idea was so bad, some senators swooped in to stop it, and the Department of Education eventually scrapped it.

Like I said, that is a quick and not at all exhaustive list of everything DeVos has done in just her first few months to exacerbate the student debt crisis for women. Just because Betsy DeVos is a woman doesn’t mean she’s helping us out. In this case, it turns out it’s just the opposite.

So, it’s time to start talking about student debt as a women’s rights issue so we can start creating solutions with women in mind. Without a full understanding of the crisis and how it affects us, we’ll never get the solutions we need. My daughter, and so many young girls out there, can’t wait.