A Women’s History Month feature. Read more stories of student loan debt here.
Student loan debt may not be exclusive to gender, but women have a tougher time paying it off than men.
Women earn just under 80 cents on the dollar compared with men, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and they’re paying more out of their pockets to service debt. One year after graduation, 47% of women working full time were using more than 8% of their earnings to repay their student loans, compared with 39% of men, according to a 2012 report by the American Association of University Women. Eight percent or less is, according to the report, how much borrowers could reasonably manage to pay toward student loan debt.
Women with student debt
Five women spoke with NerdWallet about their relationship with student debt and their studies. They also shared their perspective on a future when they’re finally free of student debt.
Occupation: Import manager at Baron Francois, a wine wholesaler and importer in New York
College: Bachelor’s degree in French language and literature at the University of Maryland, College Park (2009)
Total borrowed in student loans: She estimates $80,000
Location: Jersey City, New Jersey
Lourdes Arena is embarrassed to admit she doesn’t know her exact student loans total. “I’m in the dark,” she says. “I know I have loans, and it’s definitely a combination of private and federal. My mom was the main co-signer of these loans, so I wasn’t very clear how the loans work.”
Arena attended community college for two years before paying out-of-state tuition at the University of Maryland, College Park. After graduation, she deferred her loans while working in the service industry, saved enough to move out on her own and began paying more attention to her finances. “I’m not the best saver in the world, but … I hate the feeling of owing money, so I just want to get things paid off,” she says.
On attending community college first: “I would have owed more if I didn’t go to community college and play sports and go for free for two years of my life, despite me not wanting to be home. Community college probably put me in a better position than most.”
Occupation: Program manager for Iowa Startup Accelerator, a program by the nonprofit NewBoCo in Cedar Rapids, Iowa
College: Bachelor’s degree in political science and international studies from Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa (2016)
Total borrowed in student loans: $27,000
Location: Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Molly Monk is a recent graduate who lives a frugal lifestyle to pay down her $27,000 federal student loan debt. “I didn’t want to have to move back in with my family to pay off my loans, so that led me to think about where can I live so I can pay off my loans and still have a comfortable life,” she says.
Monk pays $500 a month for a one-bedroom apartment in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, across the street from her job at a nonprofit. Going into nonprofit work, she knew salaries would be lower, but, she says, “Living in a city that’s affordable made doing that work possible for me.” She also picked up a part-time job and sends every paycheck from this directly to her loans.
On advice to other new grads: “Living in a city that might not seem as glamorous can make your life a lot easier, and you can live a lot more comfortable. I can have my own apartment instead of having to share with three roommates. I would like to eventually live somewhere else, but right now, living here makes a nice quality life. Give Iowa a try.”
Occupation: In between work at a production company and waiting to hear back from a job in her field
College: Bachelor’s degree in journalism, minor in Spanish language and culture at Purchase College, State University of New York (2014)
Total borrowed in student loans: $27,000 in federal loans
Location: New York City
Alina Suriel is more organized than most when it comes to paying off her student debt. “I have a whole chart about my student loans and the interest that I’m charged every month and the payments I’m expected to make,” she says.
Suriel was aware of the burden of student debt before she went to school, which is why she chose a public college with a lower price tag. After graduation, it was challenging for Suriel to make minimum payments on her $27,000 federal loan debt while she was earning $25,000 a year, but she made it work. She makes additional payments on her loans and is on track to eliminate them earlier than the standard 10-year repayment term.
On the value of her degree: “I come from a place where a lot of people don’t have degrees, so it really was a gateway to a life that I wouldn’t be able to have otherwise. … When you apply to jobs now, they expect you to have a degree.”
Occupation: Bakery manager
College: Bachelor’s degree in theater studies and a certificate in women and gender studies from Ohio University (2011)
Total borrowed in student loans: $28,000
Location: Lakewood, Ohio
It wasn’t until Bethany Francis reached her senior year of studying theater at Ohio University that she realized she didn’t want to be an actor. “I feel like I shot myself in the foot, because what are you going to get a job in with a theater degree?” she says.
Francis deferred her federal loans for most of her post-grad life and has been able to make only sporadic payments. She now works part-time at a bakery in Lakewood, Ohio, where she lives with her husband. She is not making payments, and her interest is still growing.
Francis says if she could go back in time, she might have skipped college or chosen a different major. “I wish I could have gotten something that projected me into a career instead of a lot of debt.”
On her ability to pay off student debt: “I honestly don’t know if I’ll ever be able to pay it off. Even if I paid $50 a month for every month, I wouldn’t pay it off unless I was close to retirement. For me, it looks pretty bleak. I’m kind of resigned. I don’t even see that as a reality.”
Occupation: Account supervisor at ICR, a strategic communications and advisory firm in Norwalk, Connecticut
College: Bachelor’s degree in public relations from Quinnipiac University (2008)
Total borrowed in student loans: $300 left on a $20,000 federal loan
Location: Norwalk, Connecticut
Some $3,000 of Kate Ottavio Kent’s $20,000 in student loans were paid thanks to competing in the Miss Connecticut pageant in 2010. The Miss America pageant markets itself as the nation’s largest scholarship organization for women. “I always joke, I was first runner-up, so I got a lot of the benefits of having won, but I could focus on my career trajectory,” Kent says.
When Kent graduated from Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut, in 2008, she felt “totally terrified.” But within three months of graduating, she found a job in public relations, her field of choice. She’s paid off nearly all of her loans and has just $300 to go. Kent says she’s proud to have owned some of her education costs.
On the prospect of being debt-free soon: “There’s something about making that last $60 payment that will be celebration-worthy.”
How to make student loan payments more manageable
There are 44.2 million stories of student loan debt, including these women’s. While everyone’s circumstances are different, there are options available to those who are struggling to make monthly payments.
For federal loans, income-driven repayment will cap your monthly payment at a percentage of your income and extend your standard 10-year loan term to 20 or 25 years. Your monthly payments will be lowered, but over time you’ll pay more in interest.
If you have private loans, student loan refinancing could replace your existing loans with a new, private loan at a lower interest rate. To qualify, you need stable income as well as a credit score in the mid-600s or higher. If you refinance federal loans, you’ll sacrifice federal protections, including loan forgiveness, more lenient deferment or forbearance and access to an income-driven repayment plan.
For more on these women and additional stories of student debt woe and triumph, follow the “Faces of Student Loan Debt” series.