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Recent Supreme Court decision impacts the gender wage gap and survivors

December 4, 2023

In a major setback for American student borrowers, the Supreme Court ruled against the Biden administration’s initial plan to cancel up to $20,000 in student debt per borrower, stating it exceeded the President’s authority. The ruling meant Biden’s original debt cancellation program could not move forward. However, in January 2023, the Department of Education proposed a new, narrower student debt forgiveness plan that would cancel up to $10,000 in federal student loan debt for borrowers earning under $125,000 individually or $250,000 annually per household.1 

Student loan forgiveness is critical for achieving pay equity and eliminating financial disparities that can increase the risk of domestic violence and make it harder for victims to obtain safety. Striking this plan down disproportionately impacts communities of color, especially women of color, and further delays pay equity.

President Biden’s original debt relief plan was projected to deliver $302 billion in relief to nearly 43 million borrowers, including 71% of Black and 67% of Hispanic borrowers.2 Striking this plan down disproportionately impacts communities of color, especially women of color, and delays pay equity. Women alone hold over $929 billion – nearly two-thirds of the student debt in the U.S., which totals over $1.77 trillion and Black women hold the most student debt of any racial or gender group.3, 4 

Higher education at public colleges and universities was tuition-free or extremely low-cost prior to the 1960’s, when protests arose across the country to force institutions to admit more students of color and include Black and Chicanx studies departments.5, 6 In response to those protests, Governor Ronald Reagan of California proposed the University of California start charging tuition to “get rid of undesirables.7 Later, between 1987 and 2017, average state spending per student for public colleges and universities dropped by 18%.8 The decline in state funding for higher education and rising tuition costs makes student debt necessary for many. However, because of existing social and economic inequalities and gaps in economic stability and wealth, student loan debt disproportionately impacts communities of color who are likely to need to borrow more to access higher educations.  

The burden of student loan debt weighs heaviest on women of color and hinders the ability to build generational wealth. While more women than men of color are graduating from college, the impact of student loans worsens the gender-based wage gap. On average, African American graduates owe $25,000 more in student debt than White graduates.9 After school, Black women are offered lesser starting salaries and face additional biases in promotional opportunities.10 Over a lifetime, the gender pay gap for Black women and Hispanic women is intensified as they currently only earn 63 cents and 54 cents compared to each dollar earned by a White, non-Hispanic man.11 

Meanwhile, the student debt crisis consumes a large portion of many women of color’s take-home pay, making it difficult to accumulate savings or wealth to pass down. About 64% of Black women and 36% of Latinas who graduated with a bachelor’s degree have student loan debt.12 Paying down student loans takes money from other investments like buying a home, starting a business, or saving for retirement. It restricts the ability to provide for children’s futures financially. Relieving student debt would allow women to allocate those funds in ways that facilitate generational wealth transfer and be a step towards pay equity. Research shows that cancelling even $50,000 in student debt would improve the debt burden for almost 93% of low-income Black households and substantially increase their wealth.13 

Student debt worsens existing wage gaps, with one study showing a woman with a bachelor’s degree and debt of $30,000+ typically earns 31% less than a man with the same degree and no debt.14 Over a 40-year career, the “debt penalty” is estimated to cost women $213,000 in lost earnings.15  

The loan forgiveness would have been an economic stimulus to prevent defaults, improve credit, and build economic stability. It could have allowed more women to switch careers, escape poverty, return to work, or move on to better opportunities – potentially improving wages. The relief would also help free up income for housing, small businesses, and other necessary expenses to thrive.  

Student loan forgiveness is critical for achieving pay equity and eliminating financial risks of domestic violence (DV). This debt burden further restricts their economic mobility, which can exacerbate power and control dynamics within a relationship. Economic abuse is a common tactic used by abusers to control survivors and limit their financial independence.16 The overwhelming amount of student loans can make it harder for survivors to leave abusive relationships. Research shows that women and people of color take on more student debt on average while also entering careers with lower pay.17  

The loan forgiveness would have been an economic stimulus and a step toward equitable – and thriving – pay. In addition to helping survivors of DV, eliminating student debt would reduce known risk factors for domestic violence, including poverty and limited economic opportunities, and has the potential to help prevent domestic violence.18 

In summary, the crushing burden of student debt reinforces systemic barriers to pay equity and exposes the likelihood of experiencing domestic violence. Student debt “is a systemic condition, not the individual failure of those who make poor choices in a fair system.”19 Forgiving student loans is necessary to ensure all women have financial equity in their pay and no longer experience the economic risk factors for domestic violence. Forgiving student loans is a necessary part of supporting survivors and reducing risk factors for DV. 

To learn more about the student debt and how it disproportionately impacts women, check out these resources: 


  1. Turner, C. & Carrilllo, C. (2022). Biden is canceling up to $10K in student loans, $20K for Pell Grant recipients. Retrieved from,a%20Pell%20Grant%20in%20college.  
  2. JP Morgan Chase Institute (2022). Who benefits from the 2022 student debt cancellation? Retrieved from 
  3. AAUW (2021). Deeper in Debt. Retrieved from 
  4. Hanson, M. (2023). Student loan debt statistics. Retrieved from 
  5. Grigsby Bates, K., Marisol Meraji, S. (2019). The student strike that changed higher ed forever. Retreived from 
  6. Wanda Swan, The Racist History of Student Loan Debt, Come Get Your White People, podcast audio, July, 19, 2023, 
  7. Rich, J. (2020). Free college was once the norm all over America. Retrieved from,and%20Chicanx%20studies%20and%20departments. 
  8. aenz, M., Mitchell, M. & Leachan, M. (2019). State Higher Education Funding Cuts Have Pushed Costs to Students, Worsened Inequality. Retrieved from 
  9. Gasman, M. (2023). The ‘Bottom Line’ On The Student Debt Crisis And Affording College. Retrieved from 
  10. Weller, C.(2019). African Americans Face Systematic Obstacles to Getting Good Jobs. Retrieved from 
  11. Frye, J., Bleiweise, R., Khattar, R. (2021). Women of Color and the Wage Gap. Center for American Progress. Retrieved from 
  12.  AAUW (2021). Fast Facts: Women & Student Debt. Retrieved from 
  13. Maye, A. (2021). The Student Loan Debt Crisis Impedes Black Women’s Economic Security. Retrieved from
  14. The Black Institute (2022). Student Debt as an Issue of Racial Justice.  Retrieved from 
  15. AAUW(2021). Deeper in Debt. Retrieved from 
  16. NNEDV (n.d.). About Financial Retrieved from,accessibility%20to%20the%20family%20finances.
  17. AAUW (2021). Deeper in Debt. Retrieved from 
  18.  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Risk and protective factors for perpetration. Retrieved from 
  19. Rich, J. (2020). Free college was once the norm all over America. Retrieved from,and%20Chicanx%20studies%20and%20departments.