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Sahara Artiga, one of 16 million student loan borrowers who was approved for student loan forgiveness but has not yet received aid because of ongoing legal challenges to President Biden’s loan relief plan, spends her days balancing her job as a benefits specialist and mom to a 2-year-old child.
Artiga, 30, originally took out $29,000 in student loans to go toward her education at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. She started paying off her loans in 2014 after she graduated. But while she has been making monthly payments towards her loans (even during the payment pause), she still owes some $27,000.
That debt, she says, is affecting her career aspirations. “I actually cannot afford child care. The daycares around me are $3,600 a month, which is more than my rent in D.C.” Artiga tells TIME. “I’m essentially staying in a work-from-home job so that I can take care of my kid at the same time, and while that’s saving me money, it’s not easy.”
As millions of borrowers anxiously await a looming Supreme Court opinion that will decide whether President Biden’s student loan forgiveness is constitutional, a subset of that population finds themselves especially eager to hear the news: women. Women hold nearly two-thirds of the country’s student loan debt, owing $929 billion of the $1.54 trillion student debt, according to the American Association of University Women (AAUW).
“That’s a pretty substantial amount of money that women are taking on in many cases to just sort of achieve what men don’t even need to have a degree to achieve,” Gloria L. Blackwell, CEO of AAUW, tells TIME.
Why do women owe so much more than men?
Although women make up more than half of the college educated labor force, per the Pew Research Center, women still face barriers to paying off their loans due to the gender wage gap, a lack of generational wealth and gender norms placed on women.
Black women are particularly affected by student loan debt, owing an average of $37,558 compared to the $29,862 white men owe and $31,346 white women owe. “If you are coming from a space where you have fewer resources available, that means that you’re going to take longer to pay your loans off,” says Blackwell.
The gender wage gap has remained relatively stable in the U.S. throughout the past two decades, with women earning an average of 82% of what men earn. Black women make less, earning about 63 cents for every dollar made by non-Hispanic white men, though Hispanic and Native American women fare even worse, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor.
That gap means women earn less, delaying the time it takes to pay off their student loans, but also pushes women to pursue advanced degrees in an effort to increase their pay and reach the economic standing of their male counterparts.
“Women are still required to have higher credentials to really pursue their careers and to seek out the same opportunities that men have, and so that means that they are going to school, not just for undergraduate degrees, but for graduate degrees as well,” Blackwell says. Other experts, like Sabrina Calazans, managing director at the Student Debt Crisis Center (SDCC), concur. The SDCC is a national nonprofit that advocates on behalf of student loan borrowers and also conducts education and outreach work for borrowers.
“What we hear from women is oftentimes, ‘I went to grad school because I needed to make up for the gender pay gap.’ Or, ‘I went because I’m a woman of color, and I’m often paid less than my white and male counterparts,’” she tells TIME.
And the lack of familial support can be an additional barrier for borrowers who come from low-income backgrounds. Calazans says that the lack of generational wealth makes it difficult to pay for not only tuition, but also additional costs like books, supplies and transportation. “For a lot of people who don’t come from generational wealth, it is tough because it’s not just tuition, right? It’s a cost of living,” Calazans adds.
Student loan debt is stifling
Calazans adds that for many, student loan debt is something that borrowers carry for life. The SDCC mostly speaks to women between the ages of 35 to 50, which she says is the point when the economic harm of their debt really begins to settle.
“One of the main concerns that I see coming into my inbox is from older folks who are looking to retire or thinking about retirement, or their children are now going to college and so they’re concerned they can’t retire now,” Calazans tells TIME. Artiga’s mother, for instance, is paying off a Parent Plus loan she took out to support her daughter’s college aspirations in addition to her own student loans she took out in the ’90s.
That financial burden takes an emotional toll on women’s lives. “Women are caregivers, women are mothers, women are, you know, more likely to be raising children or taking care of elders and other people while they’re pursuing their college degrees,” Blackwell tells TIME. “Working and taking care of those other responsibilities certainly have a disproportionate impact on women.”
Artiga especially felt that two years ago when she had her child and she was unable to breastfeed her baby, forcing her to pay for baby formula during the formula shortage, a period where prices skyrocketed. The payment pause was a saving grace for her, but as payments are set to resume in the fall, Artiga fears that the ongoing economic crisis in America will impact her and make it even more difficult to pay off her student loans.
“Once the payment pause comes off I’m nervous that we’re going to have to start going into like our mortgage savings because I don’t want the interest to kind of catch me like it did the first time,” Artiga says.
Artiga and her family believe it will be feasible for them to purchase a home within the next three years but they are prioritizing paying off their existing student loan debt first. Student loan cancellation could have helped them achieve that goal more quickly, but Artiga says she does not want “the interest to make [her] loan way more than [she’s] ever taken out.”
Her fears are well-founded, according to Blackwell. “So much research has demonstrated that 10 years after [graduating] you’re paying your student loans, and many students, particularly Black women, owe more than when they started out. It’s that cycle that they can’t get out of. You’re just on that hamster wheel, and there’s literally no relief,” Blackwell says.
The Supreme Court is set to make their decisions on student loan forgiveness in the upcoming days.