Jamie Luthy grew up with her family and grandparents in a double-wide trailer on five acres in the rural town of Oakhurst, California. She struggled while taking standardized tests and needed tutors in school. Despite the academic and financial obstacles she faced, Luthy wanted to go to college.

"I didn’t want my background to determine my future," she said.

Twelve years and around $60,000 in debt later, Luthy, now 30, has a master's degree in rehabilitation counseling and recently moved across the country to begin her career as a vocational counselor.

Her story is not uncommon. According to a recent study published by the Pew Research Center, more poor women are gambling on their future by taking out a burdensome amount of debt in return for a college education. In fact, more women than men from low-income backgrounds are graduating from college than ever before, and women are more likely to borrow to finance their higher education than men.

The question is whether the risk of going into debt is worth the benefits of an education. Most experts agree that men and women are better off in the long run with a college degree. And there are smart ways to reduce the costs of college and maximize the benefits of a college degree to pay off student loans.

"I think it’s important for everyone to look at his or her own individual circumstances and where they want to be and what they want to be doing," Luthy said. "For me, (the debt) was worth it, but for the next-door neighbor, it may not."

Gender reversal

For the past 30 years, women have outnumbered men in college and have increasingly earned more bachelor's degrees than men. In 2012, 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees were awarded to women and 43 percent to men, according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics. That ratio that hasn’t budged much since the 1990s.

What has changed is the share of male and female students who borrow and the number of poor women going to college.

In 1992, half of male students and half of female graduates had student loan debt, according to the Pew center report. The number of students who take out loans has risen across the board since then, but in 2012 female graduates were more likely to owe student debt than male graduates.

In 2012, 71 percent of female graduates compared to 67 percent of male graduates owed student debt. The 4 percent difference is small, but it is statistically significant, said Richard Fry, senior economist at the Pew Research Center.

The reason for the shift in the past 20 years is a larger proportion of women from low-income backgrounds attending college than low-income men, reported Stephanie Ewert in the Journal of Higher Education in 2012.

"In the class of 2012, a greater proportion of the female grads are from the lowest income quintile or are more likely to be from disadvantaged families," said Fry.

Labor market incentives

One reason for the college gender gap among low-income students is the lack of well-paying job opportunities for women without college degrees.

“Girls and boys are raised in the same families, attend the same elementary and secondary schools, and face the same college prices,” explained scholars from the University of Michigan, Martha Bailey and Susan Dynarski, in a study on gender differences in college for the National Bureau of Economic Research. The difference is that “men and women operate in segregated labor markets … and, therefore, face different returns to human capital.”

Sociologists call this distinction occupational segregation by gender.

“The occupational segregation of gender (meaning the concentration of men in some jobs and women in others) is more persistent among jobs that do not require a college degree," said Rachel Dwyer, a professor of sociology at The Ohio State University. "Over time, the jobs that have integrated tend to be jobs that require a college degree. Women have entered the professions, women have entered business, and women have integrated journalism.”

Meantime, decent-paying jobs that do not require a degree remain male-dominated.

Dwyer said that low-income women are assessing their often-dismal labor market options and realizing that college is the best way to improve those options. It may mean years of schooling and tens of thousands of dollars of debt, but in the long run, she says, “they are better off.”

Luthy acknowledges the stereotype, but in her farming community near Yosemite National Park, men were raised to work with their hands and to build things. And in impoverished families, men could work in construction or do manual labor and bring home a decent check. Women couldn't, she said. Without an education, women were stranded in a cycle of poverty.

Luthy did not want to live in poverty. And more than that, she wanted a job that "got me in the gut," she said. "But beyond just growing up to be who I wanted to be, I also wanted to prove to people — to everyone — that I could succeed."

Where girls excel

To explain another reason women are outpacing men in educational attainment in all income brackets, one has to rewind to middle and high school achievement.

“If we look at test scores, who participates in honor classes, high school completion rates, etc. — what you will find is that female students from disadvantaged families are doing better than male students from the same backgrounds,” Fry said in an interview.

According to economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz of Harvard University, and Ilyana Kuziemko of Columbia University, the fact that girls do better in school than boys is not a new phenomenon. The scholars looked at three surveys, one that dates back to 1957, and found that “girls achieved considerably higher grades in high school than did boys.”

The difference now in women outpacing men in higher education is driven by higher economic returns for women, lowered barriers to women in careers, and an expansion in their access to higher education, according to Goldin, Katz, and Kuziemko in their study published by the Journal of Economic Perspectives.

According to Fry, this gender gap is most prevalent in the low-income group.

"It used to be the case in the '40s and '50s that sons from poor families were more likely to go to college," he said. "There’s been a flipping."

Boys are losing male role models in the home, he said. According to research by Bailey and Dynarski, most children in single-parent households live with their mothers. And sons are likely to "attain less education than their sisters when the father is absent," wrote sociologists Claudia Buchmann of the Ohio State University and Thomas DiPrete of Columbia University in an article for the American Sociological Review.

Also, "the bulk of primary and secondary schoolteachers are women," reported Bailey and Dynarksi, meaning that boys are losing out on role models at school, too.

Dwyer said another reason for the imbalance are "ideas of masculinity (which) sometimes devalue schooling and value sports or something else more." The stigma may encourage boys to ditch school, misbehave during classes and spend few hours on homework.

The debt burden

While the data show women carry more student debt than men, the contributing factors are an area of research that has barely been touched. Fry speculated that it could be the pay disparity women face, especially right after graduation, that makes it hard to pay back loans as quickly as men.

“Is carrying debt a bad thing for these women?" Dwyer said. "Well, the question is, what would they have done without (an education)? How would they have done without it?”

In the short term, an indebted employee's net income does take a hit. Young, educated household heads who owe student debt have a median net worth (income and assets minus debt) of $8,700. While young, uneducated household heads with no student debt have a median net worth of $10,900, according to a previous study done by Fry.

Yet indebted students are better off in other areas. They are more likely to have a professional career or management position, more likely to marry or be in a long-term relationship, more likely to be employed, and less likely to be living in poverty, according to a Pew report.

But low-income young women and men can make decisions now to reduce future debt. Susan Madsen, a professor of management at Utah Valley University and director of the Utah Women and Education Project, said young women should compare university costs and look at less expensive accredited community college for general courses. They should contemplate the job prospects of their areas of study and consider majoring in STEM or business fields. She recommends avoiding non-accredited colleges and universities.

Madsen said it is the ethical responsibility of educators to inform prospective students, especially low-income students, about their educational options before they choose an institution.

The tragedy is when women borrow for college, but then drop out without graduating. And those who drop out after three or four years without pausing to get an associate degree are the most unfortunate, said Madesen. In that situation, women have a lot of debt, but don't have the education to obtain a high-paying job.

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College graduates earn nearly double what those with a high school diploma earn, according to research by Pew. Over a lifetime, the benefits of a college degree and outweigh the cost and financial strain of paying off any debt incurred.

Prospective students should also be aware of repayment plans for indebted graduates that can be tailored to fit their income. And if graduates choose civil service, like Luthy, the government will forgive the balance of their debt after 120 on-time payments.

"(College) happened to be the thing I needed to do. For me, it was about pulling myself out of poverty," she said. "I did not want for my future self to live in poverty, so I was going to do what I could to make sure that didn’t happen."

dsutton@deseretnews.com | Twitter: @debylene

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