Student Debt Showdown: AAUW’s 2018 March Madness Bracket

March 15, 2018

University of Michigan plays against University of Indiana. (Photo courtesy of MGoBlog Flickr)

March Madness, the annual NCAA Division I basketball tournament, kicks off this week, and while we’re excited to see who comes out on top in the games, we also want to see how these schools stack up for women students! This year AAUW is using the tournament to highlight a common struggle facing many college women: student debt.

We calculated the median student debt held by women when leaving each competing school. In each matchup, the school whose women students left with more debt is knocked out of the tournament, while schools where women held less debt advance. The outcomes reflect a number of factors, including school commitments to financial aid and student demographics. Our Final Four schools are a diverse mix of institution types — public and private, religious and secular. While student debt is influenced by many things, institutions across sectors can work to reduce the debt burden their students must take on.

College helps women get ahead and improves their economic security, but it comes at a significant cost. AAUW’s 2017 report Deeper in Debt: Women and Student Loans highlighted how student debt uniquely impacts women. Our analysis found that women are more likely to take on debt and on average take on more debt than men across degree levels and institution types. And because of the gender pay gap women have less disposable income with which to repay their loans after graduation, requiring more time to pay back their student debt than men need. As a result, women hold nearly two-thirds of the outstanding student debt in the United States — more than $800 billion. Black women take on more student debt on average than do members of any other group.

Check out our brackets below and join us in rooting for the schools that do better by women students!

Men’s Tournament Bracket Winner:
Duke University

The Duke Blue Devils take home the trophy because women leave with a median debt of $7,500, the lowest among the schools in the men’s tournament.

Women’s Tournament Bracket Winner:
Princeton University

The Princeton Tigers are the winners of our women’s bracket. Princeton’s median debt for women, the lowest in the women’s or men’s tournaments, is $5,500.

While the lower debt rates from Duke and Princeton may take home the prize in this analysis, they don’t tell the full story of student debt for women nationwide. For one, we used the median amount of debt held when leaving an institution, which means that half of all women from these schools leave with debt larger than these numbers. In addition, institutional support for students goes beyond just measuring student debt. It is important for schools to ask questions about how they can serve all students, especially students with financial need, rather than the high cost of tuition putting those schools out of reach.

The bottom line: Women are taking on a lot of student debt and it is impacting their long-term economic security. Of all the schools in both of our brackets, the lowest median debt women leave school with is $5,500 — still a substantial amount of money to owe. This impact is compounded across a lifetime — following graduation, women repay their loans more slowly than do men, in part because of the gender pay gap. Thanks in part to student debt, women are more likely than men to experience financial difficulties, and many are unable to meet essential expenses.

AAUW advocates safeguarding and expanding Pell Grants for low-income students, as well as providing nontraditional students the resources they need — on-campus child care, for example — to successfully complete college degrees. Solutions to the student debt problem should also include supporting income-driven repayment approaches that reflect borrowers’ realities, like the gender pay gap. And our support for students should address the additional costs they face beyond tuition. At the end of the day, we want to improve financial outcomes for all students, not just celebrate schools where women leave with less debt.

Our brackets serve as a fun way to cheer for accessible higher education as March Madness begins, but they’re also a good reminder that we still have more work to do to make college affordable for women. Congress is currently working to reauthorize the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA) and has the chance to ensure the opportunity to pursue higher education remains a reality for all, not just a few. Tell your members of Congress to protect Pell Grants and improve loan repayment options in the HEA reauthorization!

More about Our Method

All debt data for colleges and universities used here are available through the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard. AAUW used the most recent available Scorecard data, updated December 19, 2017. The data originated from the Department of Education’s National Student Loan Data System. The Scorecard variable used was FEMALE_DEBT_MDN, the median federal student loan debt for women separating from the college or university over a two-year span. This median includes women withdrawing without completing a program, as well as those graduating with a degree or credential, because the Department of Education does not provide gender-disaggregated statistics on median debt among graduating students.

Take Action

Deeper in Debt: Women and Student Loans research report cover

Deeper in Debt: Women and Student Loans

AAUW’s 2017 research report takes a close look at the context and significance of the student debt crisis for women.

The Simple Truth About the Gender Pay Gap Fall 2017

The Simple Truth about the Gender Pay Gap

This report explains the pay gap in the United States; how it affects women of all ages, races, and education levels; and what you can do to close it.

Fight for Fair Pay

The gender pay gap is real, and it hurts women and families. Take action today.

By:   |   March 15, 2018


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  28. Peggy Woods-Clark says:

    Glad that champion Duke has the lowest student debt for women graduates, but I just can’t be sad that they lost to my Jayhawks to reach the final four. KU will have to do better on the court and off.

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