Sociologists have found that student loans provide more help to women than they do for men in encouraging graduation from college but, on average, taking out loans makes graduation more likely for all students.

Yet the debt eventually  has diminishing returns and becomes less effective at boosting chances of graduation -  about $2,000 lower for men than for women. Part of the reason may be because the job prospects for male college dropouts are better for men than women.

"At least early in their careers, women suffer more than men if they don't have a college degree," said Rachel Dwyer, co-author of the paper and associate professor of sociology at Ohio State University. "Women will go deeper in debt to finance college because they need the degree more than men if they want to earn a good living. Men will drop out at lower levels of debt."

The data for the study came from 3,676 young Americans who participated in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997, conducted by Ohio State's Center for Human Resource Research for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The NLSY97 interviewed people between the ages of 13 and 17 in 1997 and then talked to the same people each year up to 2010-2011. At that time, the young adults in this study were 25 to 31 years old. 

The sociologists examined student loans taken out each year the participants were enrolled in college, and how much they still owed overall on their loans. Women were more likely to take out loans than men, with 40 percent of women and 34 percent of men taking out loans on average each year.

"Clearly, educational debt was part of the college experience for many students in the 2000s," Dwyer said.  It was the first full decade after the US Congress changed student loans to be unlimited, leading to a large increase in university tuitions, private colleges and student debt.

For men, debt started having diminishing returns on the probability of graduation at a lower level ($12,711) than for women ($14,682). This was true even after the researchers took into account many other factors that influence graduation rates, including parental household income, race and ethnicity, high school grade point average, whether the student were married or had children, whether they attended a private or public college, and other factors.

Further analysis by the scholars suggested that the different job prospects for men and women may play a big role in how much debt students are willing to carry to graduate. The results showed that men who dropped out of college had earnings similar to male college graduates, at least early in their careers. But women who dropped out earned about $6,500 a year less than women who graduated – even after taking into account a variety of demographic factors that influence income.

"Men may drop out at lower levels of debt than women because they have better job prospects than women do without a college degree," Dwyer said. For example, some men can still receive good pay in the construction industry and, to a lesser extent, in manufacturing. Women don't engage in those types of jobs as often as men.

Published in Gender&Society.