Higher Education Strategy Associates

Worst. Student Aid Data Analysis. Ever.

While flipping through Twitter the other day, I saw what I am pretty sure is the weakest analysis of student aid data in history. I won’t prejudice readers by telling you whose analysis it was (see if you can guess).

Anyways, the analysis went like this: “60% of student loan borrowers are women! Tuition fees have a gendered impact!” Honestly, that’s what it said.

“Gosh,” I wondered. “Could the fact that 60% of borrowers are women have anything to do with the fact that 58% of undergraduates are women? Might this in any way explain this crazy and obviously gendered result?”

“Also, what about grants,” I thought. “What percentage of grants are given to women? Surely, if there were some dastardly gendered effect going on, women would get fewer grants than men, right?”

Well, the answer depends on what kind of grants we’re talking about. If we’re talking about merit aid – that is, scholarships – female students take about a 70% share of those. Somehow, no one is calling the human rights office about that one. As for need-based grants, women get (drumroll please) roughly 60% of these. This really shouldn’t be a surprise; since both loans and grants are need-based, it would take a particularly odd set of circumstances for the award figures from these two to be more different. And, of course, because they receive more grants, the idea that women are “paying more” is complete nonsense.

Three questions arise here which I think the people peddling this little meme need to answer. One, if fees have such a disproportionate and negative impact on women, why do women outnumber men almost three to two in universities? Two, if women having more loans means that debt is “gendered,” shouldn’t we similarly describe the phenomenon of women receiving more need- and merit-based grants as “gendered,” only in a positive sense? Three, aren’t you embarrassed by how pathetic this line of argument is?

To be clear, I’m not saying everything is hunky-dory for female students. They do indeed borrow at a slightly higher rate than men, even accounting for higher enrolment rates. They receive less money from their parents than boys do, and their summer jobs tend to be significantly less remunerative too (though this is a function of different field of study choices rather than gender directly). In athletics scholarships, at least, there is a significant gender gap, which probably needs to be addressed. And that’s before we get into the difficult situationof women in fields like engineering.

So: is there work to be done? Certainly. But pushing non-stories doesn’t really count as “work.”

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