Stuck in a hospital office job that offered no hope of promotion and little inspiration, Ginnelle Vasquez did what she thought she was supposed to: She went back to college.
Vasquez, 38 and a mother of five, spent weekends in classes at Springfield College to finish her bachelor’s degree, and is on track to earn her master’s degree in social work through Simmons College’s online program next year.
She hopes to land a job helping families and make a bit more money to support her own. But that dream is coming at a steep price: more than $100,000 in student loans from the two schools.
Vasquez is among the millions of American women who now shoulder almost two-thirds of the $1.3 trillion in outstanding student loans, even though they account for just 57 percent of students enrolled in colleges and universities.
The student loan debt crisis has been blamed for hobbling a generation of young Americans, delaying their plans to get married, have children, and buy a house. According to a new study, that burden has disproportionately fallen on women.
Women owe $833 billion in student loans, according to the American Association of University Women, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit focused on education. That’s up from $223 billion in 2004.
The reasons women hold the bulk of student debt are varied and sometimes interrelated. Women borrow more money for college and attend more expensive private colleges. They are also more likely to enroll in for-profit schools that can be convenient for working mothers and low-income women but require large loans and don’t always provide the skills needed to climb the economic ladder.
On top of that, the persistent gap in pay between women and men leaves women struggling longer to pay off their loans, straining their finances and placing them at a greater risk of default, according to the study. Women on average earn about 10 percent less than men when differences in occupation, education, and experience are factored in.
“It’s a systemic problem,” said Kevin Miller, a senior researcher at the American Association of University Women, extending beyond the choices women make about what schools to attend and careers to enter.
For Vasquez, her student debt load means worries that much of the extra money she’ll earn from her new career will have to be plowed into paying down her loans. She knows that her plans to leave subsidized housing and one day own her own place are now further out of reach. And she wonders how she will finance her children’s college educations.
“I don’t regret it, but jeez, I wish my situation was better,” Vasquez said. “I’m trying to improve my situation. But I wonder, is it really worth it?”
The average woman also borrows more money in student loans than men do. A woman graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 2012 had about $21,000 in student loan debt, $1,500 more than a typical man, according to the study.
Why is not entirely clear.
One possibility is that more women than men opt for pricier private colleges. Yet even women in public colleges take on more debt than their male classmates, said Miller, the AAUW researcher.
Black women are especially burdened with college debt, more than $29,000 on average. Their parents may have less in income and savings to help defray the cost of college, forcing many of them to borrow larger sums to earn a degree.
In addition, women are likely borrowing additional money to help pay for other living expenses, aside from tuition, such as groceries, rent, and child care while in college, Miller said.
About a quarter of students pursuing college degrees are parents, and a vast majority of them are women.
Even women who received some financial support from their parents are being pinched by student debt.
Natalie Higgins, 28, was the first in her family to graduate from college, and later, law school.
Her parents helped her pay for her undergraduate degree. But when she graduated with a law degree from Northeastern University in 2014, the Leominster native also became the first in her family to start her professional life burdened with student loan debt — $135,000 in her case.
Those loans have dictated much of Higgins’s life since. She has cut out cable television and shelved plans to save for retirement.
She could only afford her first home because she bought it from family and avoided a down payment. She is counting down the days — still two years away — to when she will pay off one of her loans and can replace her 10-year-old Hyundai.
“That’s a hard thing,” said Higgins, who is a state legislator representing her hometown, and earns $62,000 annually. “I’m making a middle-class income and having a hard time making ends meet.”
Female students also see the wage gap come into play, researchers said.
Women who work during college are likely making less than their male counterparts, forcing them to borrow more to offset their expenses, according to AAUW.
The differences in pay for men and women kick in early on in their working lives and contribute to the increased student loan payoff time. Women are likely to take two more years than male borrowers to repay their student loans.
Just out of college, women this year made on average $17.88 an hour compared with the $20.87 that men earned, according the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.
While all college graduates are seeing their wages climb again after the 2008 economic crisis, for women, the increase has been much slower and they are still making up lost ground. Male college graduates earn 5.4 percent more than they did in 2000, while women earn 2.2 percent less than they did at the start of this century, according to the economic group.
The wage gap has been persistent, even as more women go to college and earn advanced degrees, said Elise Gould, a senior economist at the institute.
“It’s hard to not think there’s some discrimination in pay or promotion,” Gould said. “There’s a sizable gap. It’s pretty striking.”
And the disproportionate load of student loan payments is one likely side effect. Four years after graduating college in 2008, women had paid off only 31 percent of their debt, compared with men who had pared down their student loans by 38 percent, according to the AAUW study.
Still, for many women as for men, an undergraduate and advanced degree are still viewed as a ticket to a better job and greater financial security. It just requires some tough choices.
Charlotte Kelly, 23, graduated last year from the University of Massachusetts Amherst with about $30,000 in student loans. Yet she heard from recruiters that if she wanted to go into politics, she needed a master’s degree to advance in her career.
Kelly, who grew up in Medford, also knew she didn’t want to borrow anymore.
So when the University of Copenhagen offered her the chance to get her master’s degree in political science, tuition free, she packed her bags for Denmark.
Kelly said she hopes to complete her degree in a less than two years to save money. She’s also working two part-time jobs to help pay for rent and other expenses while in college.
“I miss home and miss being in the US,” said Kelly, who returned home for a few weeks this month. “But the financial side of having a free master’s degree has been hard to turn down.”
Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter@fernandesglobe.