New research this month is revealing that the up-front cost of tuition isn’t the only thing making college less affordable. The struggle to pay student loan debt after college is growing increasingly pervasive, and it’s disproportionately hurting women and people of color.

The American Association of University Women (AAUW) looked at student loan debt repayment for the graduating class of 2008. By 2012, men in this class who were working full-time had paid off 44 percent of their student loan debt.[1] Women had only paid off 33 percent, and that number – like most wage gap numbers – masks serious racial disparities.[2] Black women who graduated in 2008 had only paid off three percent of their student loan debts, while Latina women had paid off just three percent.

 percentage of debt paid off
Source: American Association of University Women, 2016.

The longer it takes to repay loans, the more money the borrower pays. That means women are effectively paying a double tax – they are both earning less money and ultimately paying more for their degrees than their male counterparts.

Student loan delinquency is also disproportionately affecting people of color. The Washington Center for Equitable Growth went down to zip code-level to analyze student loan delinquency rates, average loan balances, and median income. They found a strong correlation between the share of minority residents and loan delinquency rates in zip codes with middle-class incomes.

Average loan balances by zip code
Average student loan balances by zip code. Mapping Student Loan Debt, Washington Center for Equitable Growth. 

“Our analysis finds that among minority student borrowers, those most adversely affected are the middle class – those who have taken out debt to go to college but who haven’t been able to find jobs or don’t have sufficient family wealth to pay it back.”[3] 

The middle class is getting squeezed from both sides. Working families are earning less in real dollar amounts and are sliding down the income ladder, while the wealthy continue to accumulate disproportionate amounts of wealth and keep climbing up. And nobody is feeling the effects of the middle class’s deterioration more than black and Latino families. 

“We believe that these [findings] reflect the impact of structural racism in the U.S. higher education system, credit and labor markets, and distribution of wealth.’[4]

Black and Latino borrowers are disproportionately served by high-cost credit providers.[5] They therefore tend to face less generous lending terms and repayment schedules. When you combine punishing repayment plans with job discrimination and lower median wages, higher delinquency rates are no surprise.

As a college education becomes a basic requirement for economic stability, it is also becoming a guarantee of economic vulnerability for too many students and families.


[1] The American Association of University Women. (2016). The Simple Truth about the Gender Pay Gap. Available at

[2] See note 1

[3] Steinbaum, Marshall and Vaghul, Kavya. (February 17 2016). “How the student debt crisis affects African Americans and Latinos.” Available at

[4] See note 3

[5] Ibid