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The Feminization of the College Degree?

| May 31, 2011

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Lea Grover: college debt has altered "my entire life."

College students are graduating this year with record debt, and women, who constitute most of the graduates, struggle for financial independence. 

This spring thousands of women will walk proudly across the stage to receive college and graduate diplomas in numbers far greater than their male counterparts. But in spite of their academic achievements, women graduates are still facing high barriers to financial success including exaggerated debt, a persistent wage gap and a weak job market, prompting discussion about the real value of a college degree.

Mikki Guerra struggled to obtain her undergraduate degree without financial help from her parents, even working three jobs one year in an attempt to cover her expenses. But when she graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee with a BA in sociology and $60,000 in debt, she discovered that despite its high price tag, her degree “did nothing” for her in terms of employment possibilities. She was unable to find a job in her field and had to go back to waiting tables and managing a restaurant, leading her to return to school for her master’s degree in clinical social work—and more loans.

Guerra is not alone in her financial struggles. Last year for the first time, student loan debt outpaced that of credit card debt. The class of 2011, owing an average $22,900, is the most indebted ever, according to figures estimated by Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Fastweb.com and FinAid.org, and reported in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. According to the Project on Student Debt, from 2004-2008 the percentage of graduates from four-year institutions carrying debt increased drastically from 27 percent to 67 percent.

The millennial generation is the first in U.S. history to be saddled by such debt before entering the workforce or, in some cases, before they’re allowed to drink.  “My entire life has been altered by funding my college education,” said Lea Grover, who ambitiously entered the world of higher education at the young age of 15. She attended more than five different institutions in the search for scholarships and will graduate with about $50,000 to pay back. She feels that schools have a responsibility to provide better education about debt but added, “As a teenager I really couldn't have cared less anyway. Paying off my loans was in a future so distant it might as well have not existed at all.”

Kary Zarate, who graduated with $80,000 of debt from a private college in Wisconsin, said, “I was too young to be serious about school and I did not understand my financial responsibility and the cost of the education I was receiving.” She doesn’t blame her alma mater for not providing financial guidance but wishes that she would have attended a less expensive public school or waited until she knew what she wanted to study. Unhappy with her undergraduate degree, Zarate is now completing a master’s degree in special education.

A college degree has allowed many women to reach a prime goal of the women's movement: economic independence. However, today’s female students—particularly those whose parents are not able to assist them financially—are forced to choose between the lesser of two financial evils. Guerra explained that her choice “was to acquire a lot of debt or don't go to school,” thereby risking being trapped in low paying jobs for her whole career.

Women have been the majority on many university campuses for more than two decades. Not only do they attend college more frequently, they also achieve better grades while there, graduate at higher rates and with more honors than men. Yet they are hit by inequality almost as soon as they put away their graduation caps. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), the gender wage gap and the race-gender wage gap have held steady even in the highest paying professions in recent years. As of 2010, white women continued to earn 77 percent of what white men earn. The wage gap is wider for many women of color with African-American women earning 69.6 percent and Latinas only 59.8 percent of white men’s earnings.

Robert Drago, research director for IWPR, said that taking time off, even a maternity leave, leads to a drop in wages. In addition, anyone who works part-time—as do many women raising young children—also experiences a wage hit. However, even if men took over all childcare duties, there is still a difference—10 percent for white women—attributable to gender discrimination. He also explained that while new male and female graduates often earn the same at the beginning of their careers, the wage gap grows as they age.  Part of the reason, he said, “is the women don’t get promoted at the rates that men do.”

Labor segregation is another contributing factor to earnings differentials between women and men. A report released by IWPR indicated that women earn less across all occupations whether they are female-dominated or male-dominated. However, once a profession becomes feminized, wages drop across the board. A female engineer, for example, may earn significantly more than a man working in a feminized profession such as elementary school teaching but she earns less relative to her male colleagues. And the man in teaching still earns more than his female co-workers.

A strategy for women to get ahead, said Drago, is not just college attendance but study in a non-traditional field for women such as engineering or accounting.  However, until the underlying discrimination and factors that lead to unequal pay for female-dominated jobs are addressed, this strategy may only work until the tipping point is reached and the non-traditional profession also becomes feminized.

In addition to massive debt, a wage gap and lower pay in feminized professions, today's women graduates are coming of age during a recession. Job loss in the early stages of the recession hit men harder but has since shifted, and more women are now being laid off in large part due to cut backs in the public sector where female workers are concentrated.

New college undergraduates, who were previously sheltered from the recession and are nearly 60 percent women, are having a hard time finding work. A newly released survey by the Heldrich Center at Rutgers found that of 2010 graduates with Bachelor’s degrees, only 56 percent had held at least one job by the spring after graduating, as compared with 90 percent of 2006 and 2007 grads. Of that 56 percent, only half reported that they were actually working in a field that required a college degree.

“The long-term effects are really scary, said Drago, for graduates "saddled with the equivalent of a mortgage. And if they don’t use their college degree fairly quickly they’re going to have a hard time ever using it.”

Columnist Ron Lieber of the New York Times has argued that student loans are following a similar pattern as subprime mortgages and may be the next bubble to pop. Banks have lent too much money to hopeful students who may never earn enough to make high monthly payments, he wrote. Changes in legislation, which now make it nearly impossible to default on student loans even in bankruptcy, may have contributed to the problem by giving banks the confidence to lend to an otherwise risky age group.

Zarate and Guerra are both facing at least $100,000 in debt in feminized careers, special education and social work, with starting salaries of $35,000 to 40,000. Despite the grim statistics, Guerra is hopeful about making her payments. And under the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007, social workers, teachers and some health professionals can have their student loans forgiven after ten years of full time work in designated public service areas. In addition, students who borrow starting in 2014 will be able to cap their payments at 10 percent of their income under student loan legislation passed in 2010. And while Guerra, Zarate and Grover all regret the debt they've accumulated, they do not regret the rich personal experiences afforded by their education.

But Pulitzer prize winning economist Paul Krugman made the case that college is no longer the way to build a more equal society or a strong middle class. “What we can’t do is get where we need to go just by giving workers college degrees, which may be no more than tickets to jobs that don’t exist or don’t pay middle-class wages,” he has written.

The parallel between women’s dominance of higher education and the devaluing of a college degree may be historical coincidence. Or it may point to the pernicious phenomenon of feminization—instead of college allowing women to reach parity with men, women’s success in college has devalued college itself. In either case, it may be time to develop more powerful strategies so that women can continue to gain economic independence.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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