By Libby Sander
For decades, educators and policy makers have sought explanations for why more men than women drop out of college. An article published this month in the journal Gender & Societyoffers a new theory: Men are more averse than are women to student-loan debt, and may be swayed by their perceived ability to make a decent living without a college degree.
Women, however, face an immediate disadvantage in the labor market if they drop out, earning at least $6,500 less each year than do female college graduates, the research found. That penalty, the paper speculates, may compel women to tolerate greater levels of debt to complete college—and land a better-paying job.
The article, "Gender, Debt, and Dropping Out of College," considers the effects of student-loan debt on the probability of graduation for men and women—and how dropping out of college would affect those students' earning potential in the short and long term.
Led by Rachel E. Dwyer, an associate professor of sociology at Ohio State University, the researchers analyzed longitudinal data on 9,000 young adults who were born from 1980 to 1984 and who came of age at a time when debt-financed higher education was widespread. Forty percent of women and 34 percent of men in the sample took out student loans every year; for both men and women, the average annual debt was $4,700. Low and moderate levels of indebtedness, the researchers found, tracked with a higher probability of graduating. But once debt surpassed $10,000, its correlation with graduation began to wane.
The researchers found that men were slightly more likely to drop out of college once their debt loads surpassed $12,700. For women, that slide didn't begin until their debt burdens reached $14,600. Since women and men face starkly different opportunities in the labor market, the researchers theorized, the students' views on whether debt is worth the ultimate goal of a college degree are also likely to diverge.