Women in Higher Education: 5 Key Facts and Statistics

Women have higher college enrollment and completion rates than men but face more student debt with lower pay.
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Lyss Welding
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Lyss Welding is a higher education analyst and data writer for BestColleges who specializes in translating massive data sets and finding statistics that matter to students. Lyss has worked in academic research, curriculum design, and program evaluati...
Updated on April 6, 2023
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Rebecca Long
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Rebecca Long is a copy editor for BestColleges. She has nearly a decade of editorial experience, including writing and editing. As a freelance journalist, her work has been published in The Boston Globe, The Guardian, Slate, and others. She has also ...
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Data Summary

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    Women outnumber men 1.4 to 1 in undergraduate programs and 1.6 to 1 in graduate programs.[1]
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    Among college graduates, women are more likely to have student loan debt than men and have higher balances.[2], [3]
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    Women college students face unique challenges like lower pay and higher rates of mental health diagnoses.[4], [5]

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) tracks college enrollment by gender dating back to 1947. Back then, roughly 1.7 million men were enrolled in degree programs compared to 680,000 women. In other words, men outnumbered women by about 2.5 to 1.[6] More women enrolled in college over the decades, and by 1979, there were more women in degree programs than men. The trend has never reversed since.

Even though women make up the majority of college students, they're underrepresented among college faculty. And when they graduate, their degrees don't guarantee them equal pay with peers who are men.

We collected data about women in college and beyond from governmental sources like NCES and national surveys. Here are five key findings about women in higher education.

1. Women outnumber men in college enrollment and outpace them in graduation.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, in the fall of 2022, about 8.3 million women were undergraduate college students, versus 6.1 million men. Women also outnumbered men in graduate programs — 1.8 million versus 1.1 million.Note Reference [1]

Women are also more likely to graduate college in four years than men and less likely to drop out. Just over 51% of women who enrolled in college in 2014 finished in four years versus 41% of men.[7]

Did You Know…

Many Ivy League schools didn't admit women until the 1960s or later.

Read more about how women fought for access to higher education over centuries.

2. Women are severely underrepresented in college faculty.

In 2020, NCES counted nearly twice as many male professors as female professors. To be exact, there were 122,503 male full-time professors and just 66,189 female full-time professors. NCES doesn't report on professors of other genders or those who are nonbinary.[8]

It's also important to examine how underrepresentation impacts different groups of women. The gender gap among college faculty holds across all racial and ethnic groups. Overall, professors are overwhelmingly men and overwhelmingly white.

3. Women take on more student loan debt than men.

According to NCES data from 2017, 71% of women had student loan debt 12 months after graduation compared to 64% of men. Fifty-nine percent of transgender, genderqueer, non-conforming, and questioning graduates and those who are other or multiple genders also had debt 12 months after graduating.Note Reference [2]

Women also had higher student loan balances than men. The median federal student loan debt held by women a year after graduation was $20,625. Men's median student debt was $15,000.Note Reference [3]

4. On average, women make less money than men after graduating.

You may have heard of the gender pay gap: Women make roughly 83 cents for every dollar men make.[9] Did you know that this gap persists — and may even grow — for women with college degrees?

In 2020, women with bachelor's degrees who worked full time made 75% of what men with the same credentials earned. Women with master's degrees who worked full time made just 71% of what men with master's degrees earned. Again, NCES does not report on gender non-conforming workers.Note Reference [4]

Women's higher student loan debt plus lower pay means more time spent paying off loans.

Let's say student loan borrowers pay 10% of their monthly income against their debt. It would take the average woman with a bachelor's degree six years to pay off her student loan debt versus 4.7 years for a man. And while the average man with a professional degree could pay off his debt in 20 years, it would take the average woman over 67.

Learn about the disparities women in academics face and how to honor them during Women's History Month.

5. Women college students report more mental health concerns than men.

In spring 2022, the American College Health Association surveyed more than 54,000 undergraduate students about their physical and mental health. They found that cisgender women were more than twice as likely as cisgender men to have been diagnosed with anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions. Women were three times as likely to be diagnosed with PTSD and more than six times as likely to have an eating disorder diagnosis.Note Reference [5]

Transgender and gender non-conforming students had even higher diagnosis rates for these conditions.

Additionally, a National Collegiate Athletic Association survey found that college athletes in women's sports experienced higher levels of mental health concerns. Compared to men, they were more likely to experience the following symptoms constantly or most every day:[10]

  • Feeling overwhelmed by all they had to do (47% vs. 25%)
  • Feeling mentally exhausted (38% vs. 22%)
  • Feeling overwhelming anxiety (29% vs. 12%)
  • Experiencing sleep difficulties (28% vs. 19%)