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Women were struggling with student debt before Covid. Their problems could get worse

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Kim Churches
Courtesy of American Association of University Women

It's a statistic that prompts a double-take: women owe two-thirds of the country's $1.7 trillion outstanding student loan balance.

On average, women borrow more than $31,000 to finance their education. Black women take out more than $41,000. Men, meanwhile, borrow around $29,000.

But those differences are just the start of the problem.

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It takes women longer to pay off their student debt because they still earn just 82 cents for every dollar a man makes. More time with student loans means more interest paid and fewer resources to spend on other milestones like buying a home or starting a family.

The coronavirus pandemic will likely worsen the math for women, according to a report by the American Association of University Women.

CNBC recently interviewed AAUW CEO Kim Churches about her organization's findings. The exchange below has been condensed and edited for clarity.

CNBC: Why do women borrow more in student loans than men?

Kim Churches: Women earn less than men and may not have as much to fund their educations. Some get less help from their families, and others have caregiving expenses to cover. We know that women are more likely than men to attend for-profit colleges and universities, where the debt levels are higher, so that's a factor, too.

CNBC: How do we know women struggle more than men to pay off their student debt?

KC: Difficulty repaying student loans is reflected in default rates, which are higher for women than for men, and much higher for Black and Hispanic borrowers than for white and Asian borrowers. We also found that 34% of all women and 57% of Black women who were repaying their student loans reported they had been unable to meet their essential expenses.

CNBC: Why do Black women take on more student debt, and what issues do they run into with repayment?

KC: The racial wealth gap is a big factor here. The median wealth of white households is 20 times higher than Black households, so Black families have far less to contribute to a college education. On top of that, there's the gender wage gap. Black women earn just 63 cents for every dollar a white man earns, so that translates to less money for education and a greater challenge meeting student loan obligations.

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CNBC: How do you expect the pandemic to impact women student loan borrowers?

KC: We're expecting to see a big rise in the number of women who are unable to meet their student loan obligations. Most of the layoffs we've seen have been in women-dominated fields, and many more women left the workforce and are still shouldering the responsibilities of child care and at-home schooling. If we don't address the student debt crisis, we'll see an even greater setback in women's progress in the coming years.

CNBC: Does the AAUW think forgiving student debt is a good idea?

Yes, we need student loan forgiveness, and we are actively supporting a variety of debt cancellation proposals on federal and state levels. But debt cancellation alone isn't the solution. A generation ago, one year of college cost 22% of the median household income. That number has soared to 43% today. The cost of higher education has truly gotten out of hand.