A college degree can provide many benefits, but an equal playing field apparently isn’t one of them.
Women with a bachelor’s degree earn 74 cents for every dollar their male counterparts make, according to a recent analysis released by the U.S. Census Bureau. For workers without a bachelor’s degree, the male-female pay gap is actually lower; women earn about 78 cents for every dollar men earn.
“We, as Americans, think that education is the great equalizer,” said Kim Churches, chief executive officer of the American Association of University Women, an organization focused on women’s equity. But as the Census Bureau research shows, the reality is very different.
The findings add to the growing body of evidence that even though women account for more than half of those pursuing higher education, they get less out of it – at least when it comes to pay. Other research shows that women with a bachelor’s degree earn roughly the same on average as men with an associate’s degree.
There’s a variety of reasons. For one, as Churches notes, at lower levels of the pay scale, where workers without a college degree are more likely to find themselves, there’s a pay floor, the minimum wage, which leaves less room for major gaps in pay between genders. In addition, as workers rise up the corporate ladder and hiring qualifications become more subjective, it becomes easier to hide bias and discrimination, she said.
The Census analysis also suggests that a difference in the age break down of college-educated workers and those without a degree may explain some of why the pay gap is wider for workers with a bachelor’s degree.
Another reason: Women without a bachelor’s degree tend to be older than their male counterparts, the Census found. More of their younger peers are getting a college education than previous generations.
“Occupational segregation,” or the idea that female-dominated jobs tend to pay less, is perhaps one of the biggest factors. That is, educated women typically choose to major in professions that are less lucrative.
“There are still a lot of women who are pursuing majors in the intellectual care-giving fields,” such as social work, nursing and teaching, said Nicole Smith, the chief economist at Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce.
Engineering, computing and other-male dominated fields are still valued more and, as a result, those workers are paid more.
The relatively wide gap in pay between male and female workers with bachelor’s degrees is particularly troubling because it can compound other financial challenges.
Women hold two-thirds of the nation’s outstanding student-loan debt in part because the pay gap makes it more difficult for them to pay off their debt quickly.
Closing the gap in earnings between men and women earning a bachelor’s degree will take efforts from the government, companies and educators, Churches said.
Colleges and others should be working to make sure women know the variety of fields available to them, she said. In addition, companies should be implementing policies – like pay transparency, salary bands and regular audits – that can help address discrimination.
Finally, state and federal laws surrounding pay equity and other issues could help to guarantee a more level playing field, Churches added.