As students ask themselves if they dare take on the student loans they'll need for college, the questions are especially critical for women.
More women are going to college than men, and women are earning higher grades on average. But a year after graduating from college, they are earning less in their jobs than men who graduated when they did. Their lower salaries typically follow women throughout their careers, as raises build on the previous level of pay, according to a report by the American Association of University Women.
With lower pay than men, women could have a tougher time handling the same amount of student debt as their male peers.
Researchers Christianne Corbett and Catherine Hill used 2009 data from the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics and found that one year after graduating with a bachelors degree, women were earning 82 percent of what their male peers were earning.
Women working full time earned $35,296 on average, while men working full time earned $42,918.
The researchers attributed the gap partially to the choices women make in their careers, choices that sometimes position them in occupations like teaching, which pay less than fields like engineering that tend to attract more men. But about a third of the gap in pay cannot be explained by factors such as a woman's major, career choice or hours worked, the researchers said.
They tested the impact of those factors on pay. They found that the caliber of a college made a difference in pay levels, and that people who went to more selective colleges tended to be paid more after graduation. But when men and women attended comparable selective colleges, women ended up earning between 81 and 84 percent of what men earned.
Across the occupational spectrum, too, women lagged. When women majored in business, they earned a little more than over $38,000, while men earned more than $45,000. In engineering and engineering technology and computer and information sciences, women earned between 77 and 88 percent of what men earned.
Part of the pay gap can be explained by the choices women made within those fields. For example, after studying engineering, 57 percent of men worked as engineers, but only 39 percent of women followed that path. Men were also more likely to go into management jobs that provided higher pay than staff positions.
But there were gaps in pay that could not be explained by those choices, the researchers said. Even in teaching, which attracts more women than men, the study showed that women earned 89 percent of what men earned.
With such research in mind, women need to be aware that they have to watch their debt, especially if they aren't inclined to pick lucrative career paths, the report said. They should know likely pay based on their interests and ambitions and match levels of debt to pay.
In a study of pay levels, Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University Center on Education, found that the highest earning major was petroleum engineering, with a median annual pay of $120,000. That was four times the lowest-earning major, counseling psychology, at $29,000.
Being aware of pay discrepancies does not mean forgoing college. The researchers note that women with bachelor's degrees typically earned 161 percent of what women with just a high school degree earned.
But prior to taking on student loan debt, women should be aware of a rule of thumb that suggests monthly loan payments shouldn't exceed 8 percent of monthly pay unless the person is in a relatively high-paying career with significant advancement potential. The researchers found that 47 percent of women are ignoring that rule and overloading themselves with student loan debt. For men, it was 39 percent.
Further, the researchers note that women should be willing to negotiate for higher pay when taking jobs, a tactic that men tend to do more often than women. That can position women to maximize their pay potential regardless of the field they have chosen.