Student Debt Isn’t Gender Neutral

I don’t remember my junior year in high school being nearly as fraught as my son’s. Trying to figure out the “right” balance of Advanced Placement courses and extracurricular activities. Determining his “passion” so that he can write the perfect college application. And most stressful of all—creating a financial plan so that we can muster up the resources we need to afford a college that falls somewhere in between what he’d like and what he’s qualified for. These are all part of our daily meditations.

But in light of recent findings on gender and college debt, it seems I should be more worried about my daughters than my son. They’re only 14 years old, but the fact is, yesterday was the time to start preparing them for their future. Why? Because unpaid student loan debt has emerged as a women’s issue.

Student loan debt affects women more than men

The fact that more women than men go to college seems to be one silver lining in the gender gap universe. Today, women make up about 56% of all college students across the U.S., a significant reversal since the 1970s, when men took on that position. But coupled with the gender wage gap, that silver lining’s looking tarnished.

A recent study by the American Association of University Women found that more than two-thirds of today’s unpaid college student loan debt belongs to women. Translated into dollars, that’s nearly $600 billion in debt shouldered by women. Women have less disposable income than men, and take longer to pay their student loans back. For this reason, the AAUW has recognized student loan debt as a women’s issue.

How should we manage our debt?

First off, if you’re already paying off student loan debt, don’t despair. There are a ton of resources out there to help you, from your local bank to your alma mater to financial experts featured online in articles like this one from CNN Money or this one from Bankrate.

If you have a federal student loan, the Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid office has helpful tips on how to make a payment or what to do if you can’t afford your payments. You might also have a sit-down with a financial advisor, who could help you explore your options, whether it’s finding a more suitable payment plan or looking at the “big picture” of your financial situation.

How parents can financially prepare girls for college

No parent wants their children—sons or daughters— saddled with debt before they even begin their first full-time job. How can we expect them to save for their future, when their here-and-now is borrowed?

So what’s a mom to do? Until skyrocketing college costs settle down or go away, we have to be proactive in preparing our daughters for their futures as undergraduates.

  • Start financial literacy early on.

    It’s never too early to begin teaching your daughters about money matters, even though she’s not likely to understand the value of money until she’s a middle-schooler. Granted, reading stock market reports to your three-month-old is probably not going to result in anything (except maybe a nap, which is actually not a bad thing…) but as soon as she’s old enough for a piggy bank, teach her to start saving for a rainy day.

    You could start with a small allowance, and use any one of several new digital allowance apps that’ll teach your kids about virtual finances while they learn fiscal responsibility. Check out free ones like Bankaroo or Piggybot (only for iOS devices), or ask your local bank if it has an app just for kids.

  • Have her take responsibility for her own college planning, or at least a large part of it.

    Start off by helping her to make an academic plan before she begins high school. College prep experts now advise students to start thinking about college as early as elementary school. Girls can opt for specific math or foreign language classes in school, and try their hands at various extracurricular activities like robotics, volleyball or dance classes, to figure out early on what they’d like to pursue in high school. By the time they’re in high school, they’ll have a good foundation on which to build their resume, which means they can jump right on the most direct path to their college goals. This also means they get an early start on the scholarships that best fit their skills and situations. The Department of Education has a helpful (and free!) to-do list for students, but you can also comb the library or sites like Amazon for more.

  • Be sure that you’re college-financial savvy as well.

    Attend as many college and career planning events as you can. The National Association for College Admissions Counseling hosts college fairs across the U.S., and students (and their parents) don’t have to be seniors to attend. Your child’s school may also offer workshops for parents as well as students. Take advantage of the free information that’s out there, like what’s offered by the College Board, a non-profit organization that’s best known for the SAT and AP exams, and the Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid office, which handles the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). Don’t know what the FAFSA is? Make sure you do, well before your daughter reaches her senior year, because she can’t get financial aid without it.

Honestly, the whole process can be daunting, but starting early and informed is the best way to prepare our daughters for tomorrow.

Lynn Ink is a university-level educator, writer, editor, women’s rights advocate and mom to three teens and a Border Collie. She loves Netflix binge-watching, blueberry pancakes and researching everything from historical events to remote places. She squirrels away most of her writing for no one to read, but is happy to share her work with to help women and girls achieve their fullest potential. Currently, she’s working on a novel about a caregiver who chucks it all for an epic road trip and an In-N-Out burger. Maybe she’ll share it one day.

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