UW students graduation, UW-Madison photo

April 12 is this year’s national Equal Pay Day — the day when, because of the gender wage gap, women’s pay for the previous year equals men’s. The gender pay gap highlighted today also means greater student loan debt burdens for women. The latest update of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) report, Graduating to a Pay Gap, finds less pay translates into women taking longer to pay off student loan debt.

Men who graduated from college in 2008 paid off over 40 percent of their student debt between 2009 and 2012, while women barely topped 30 percent. That disparity exists despite significantly larger percentages of women than men, 53 percent versus 39 percent, devoting a percentage of their income to paying off their student debt that is more than what an individual could “reasonably afford.” AAUW also found even larger pay gaps for women of color, meaning even more struggles in dealing with their student loan debt burden.

Additionally, the AAUW found, as has One Wisconsin Institute and others' research, that this debt hinders the ability of women to participate in the economy in key areas like retirement savings, auto and home purchasing, entrepreneurship and changing professions.

Unfortunately, in Wisconsin, Gov. Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature repealed a state equal pay law, leaving Wisconsin as one of only five states in the nation without one. Under the provisions of the law, women could have sought redress in state courts for being paid less than their male counterparts for doing the same work.

The higher education policies of Walker and the GOP are also doing women no favors in trying to close the student loan debt gap. Wisconsin under Walker has jumped from 10th to 3rd highest in the nation in percentage of college graduates with student loan debt, and that debt is, on average, nearly $29,000. Among the factors driving student debt higher are Walker's and the GOP’s cuts to the University of Wisconsin and technical colleges of nearly $1 billion, double-digit tuition hikes, and woefully underfunded financial aid that leaves tens of thousands of eligible students without any help.

Information just released by the University of Wisconsin System on the impacts of their budget cuts include larger class sizes, less capacity in high-demand, high-earning areas of study, and reductions in academic advising. All of which means, according to UW leaders, students taking longer to graduate and having to take on even more debt to pay for their education.

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Women and their families ought to be able to expect that they’ll get the same pay for doing the same work as men. And we ought to be able to expect the hard work and personal responsibility it took to get an education results in a fair shot at the middle class. On both counts Gov. Walker and the people voting for his backward policies are failing Wisconsin women.

Analiese Eicher is program director at One Wisconsin Now.

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