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As we find ourselves in the frenzy of holiday spending and gift giving, you may be surprised to know that the amount of student loan debt across the country actually exceeds the amount of credit card debt. It used to be that borrowing to buy a house or earn a college degree was called “good debt.” But is that still the case, if you can never pay off the loan? What if your ability to pay off the loan is affected by your gender? In other words, simply by being female, is your student loan debt burden likely to be greater than a man’s? The answer is yes, according to the latest data, and puts women, and especially mothers, at a serious disadvantage.

Imagine for a moment that Ms. Co-ed graduates, secures a job (lucky  her!)  and starts paying off her average debt of $20,000 in student loans. Eventually, she becomes a mother, assuming the joys and obligations of parenthood, all the while still making regular monthly debt payments. The debt goes down, but doesn’t go away, as her child grows up. Maybe she has a job loss, or a health issue, and misses a couple of payments. Then, quick as a wink, it’s time for her own child to start college, and now of course it’s even more expensive to get that degree. She takes out more loans so her son or daughter can earn a college diploma, and the cycle begins all over for her again, now extending into her own retirement and old age. This scenario is hardly atypical.

 The New York Times recently reported:

In the first three months of this year, the number of borrowers of student loans age 60 and older was 2.2 million, a figure that has tripled since 2005. That makes them the fastest-growing age group for college debt. All told, those borrowers owed $43 billion, up from $8 billion seven years ago, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Nowadays, it is not unusual for seniors to use some of their Social Security benefits to be paying off a child’s student loan debt, and 10 percent of borrowers aged 60 and older are in default, according to the Huffington Post. Many of the other parent/borrowers  will be making payments until the day they die.

As women, we get doubly whacked. The gender pay gap means women must work longer than men to pay off the same amount of indebtedness. With student loan debt extending  into our motherhood, it takes up income we might be putting aside for our own retirement or our children’s education. When they go off to college, we may borrow again, and this debt will accompany us into retirement and possibly old age. Considering how much poorer women are than men as we age, and how heavily we will rely on Social Security benefits for our income,  the notion of still paying off student loans in retirement sends my blood pressure skyrocketing!

Women, acting individually, cannot avoid the pay gap. It is the result of  outdated attitudes so embedded in our institutions and culture that it may look normal to our eyes and be undetected. Of course researching available sources of loans for education is important, as is understanding the value of various majors and occupations in the marketplace. Further, women must learn to negotiate in ways that favor higher salaries, which research suggests we do not do. Still, the government does have a role to play in crafting and enforcing effective public policy to prevent employment discrimination and protect federal programs that provide financial assistance to those with demonstrated need. We have a lot to gain from vigilant enforcement of current laws prohibiting discrimination at work, passing new laws (like the Paycheck Fairness Act) to close loopholes and increase penalties in existing legislation, and protect employees with regulations that would allow them to discuss compensation at work without fear of retaliatory action by the employer. The AAUW report, Graduating to a Pay Gap, featured in the preceding post, suggests a full range of improvements for employees, employers, students, educators and policy makers, all worthy of consideration.

Will we ever get that? Only if we insist that our legislators do it.

‘Til next time,

Your (Wo)Man in Washington

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