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Women carry bigger burden of student loan debt than men

Because of her student loans, Nichole Heisler, 26, delayed her wedding by nearly three years.

Heisler, who is an associate graphics designer in Richmond, Virginia, graduated from Bowling Green in Ohio. Despite attending a state school and finishing in four years, as well as getting scholarships and securing a residence advisor position, she is still paying back a loan tab that's over $30,000.

"I take a large chunk of my income and put it towards my student loans," she said. "That doesn't leave much for a wedding."

University student studying in library
ML Harris | Getty Images
University student studying in library

Her story is hardly unique. One in four millennials owes more than $30,000 in college debt, although women shoulder a greater share of the burden.

Largely because women outnumber men in college these days and are more likely to pursue a graduate degree, they are the ones who end up with the bigger loan balances.

In fact, 42 percent of women have more than $30,000 in college debt, compared with 27 percent of men. Women are two times more likely than men to think it will take more than 20 years to pay off their loans, according to market research firm ORC International.

It's a problem that has reached record levels in this country, with more than $1.3 trillion in student loans outstanding.

That debt also has long-term consequences. From buying a car or a home to getting married and even having children, many millennials are putting off life's major milestones because of their outstanding debt. And it's having an impact at work, as well.

About 59 percent of millennials said they value student loan repayment assistance over other perks, including flexible schedules, which is a departure from previous surveys that found flexibility to be the most desired workplace benefit, according to ORC.

And women are less likely to stay with their current employer because of their financial situation compared to men, the report said.

"The notion of forced savings, which is essentially what this is, is extremely relevant," said Eric Greenberg, president of Greenberg Educational Group, a New York–based consulting firm. "If they are successfully paying down their debt, they are more likely to stay in the job they have."

Still, only 4 percent of U.S. employers now offer company-provided student loan repayment, according to the Society for Human Resource Management's 2016 SHRM Employee Benefits survey.

"Given the competition for top talent, employers must update their approach in order to engage and retain millennials, especially among women, who were found to carry a bigger burden of student loan debt," said Natalie Smith, a vice president at PadillaCRT, the communications agency that conducted the survey for ORC. PadillaCRT polled 1,000 millennials with at least a four-year college degree between the ages of 22 to 35 in May last year.

"Every month, millennials are making student loan payments, which can feel like a mortgage payment," Smith said. "Companies must keep employees' ages and life stages in mind," she said.