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Unequal burdens: Student loan debt has bigger impact on women than men

The connection between getting more schooling after high school and getting a job used to be clearer. Investing in college or a vocational program was seen as a path toward gainful employment and a firm foundation for the future.

Now, however, the financial value of higher education is increasingly in question. Though the Great Recession officially years ago, well-paying jobs are hard to find. If you are plagued by student loan debt, you have lots of company.

This problem affects both men and women. But does it affect one gender more than another? The answer is rather surprising: women are affected more.

The pay gap based on gender

On one level, it's surprising that women are affected more. This is because women have made such important progress in the last couple of decades on so many measures of educational success.

Young women are now more likely than young men to go to college. Women also generally get better grades than their male classmates and finish their degrees more often.

Logically, then, you'd think that women's success in school would translate into improved economic opportunities for them. Yet women - even highly educated women - are still generally paid less than men.

Recent research indicates that the pay gap between women and men impacts many women's ability to pay off their student loans. According to a report by the Association of University Women (AAUW), women generally carry bigger debt burdens and take longer to pay off their loans than men.

The student debt burden is generally bigger for women because they tend to make less than men - a gap that may even be increasing.

The AAUW research looked at college-educated women who graduated in 2008, did not go on to graduate school and were working at least 35 hours per week. When they got out of school, these women were making $7,000 a year less than men. By 2012, they were making $11,000 less than men.

Student debt and bankruptcy

A heavy student debt burden can be a motivator for looking at your entire financial life and seeking a fresh start through a bankruptcy filing.

To be sure, the general rule is that student loans are not dischargeable in bankruptcy. Getting a hardship exception to this rule is not always feasible.

Even if educational debt isn't dischargeable, however, a bankruptcy filing can still be a helpful step when you are facing student debt. For example, a Chapter 7 filing could enable you to eliminate other debts, leaving you with more ability to pay your student loans. Another possibility would be to use Chapter 13 to tackle your debts and work out a payment plan.

Of course, these principles apply equally to men and women. Yet it is women who often have the greater need for educational debt relief because the burdens of that debt are not equal by gender.

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