Women graduates exiting after a graduation ceremony. Photograph, ca. 1900.
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March 6, 2020

Higher education policy has taken center stage in the 2020 Democratic Presidential primary, with candidates proposing big ideas including free college and student debt cancellation. Candidates’ focus on this issue stems from a very real change in the experience of paying for college. One in five U.S. households was burdened by student loan debt, as of 2012, compared to one in 10 in 1989. In a generation, outstanding student debt levels have reached $1.6 trillion.

Amidst the primary debate chatter, you have probably heard arguments that the student debt crisis is undermining the higher education system’s ability to fuel economic mobility. But this Women’s History Month, it’s worth noting that the debt crisis is also undermining one of the most historically unique elements of American higher education: its role as a force for gender equity.

Religiously-motivated abolitionists, who were committed to equality for black Americans and women, opened the first coeducational colleges in the United States as early as 1835. Nevertheless, when women gathered at Seneca Falls in 1848, formally launching the suffrage movement for white women (no black women were in attendance), most higher-education institutions were still closed to women. The women at Seneca Falls issued the Declaration of Sentiments, which decried the fact that women had been denied not only their “inalienable right to the elective franchise,” but also “the facilities for obtaining a thorough education, all colleges being closed against her.”

In the coming decades higher education dramatically opened up to women. In 1862, the federal government made its first major investment in higher education through the first Morrill Act, which granted federal land to each state for the explicit purpose of funding the creation of public colleges. As these public institutions opened, especially in the new western states, the majority accepted women from the start. Of the 34 new public institutions founded between 1861 and 1880, 71% accepted women.

The decision to accept women at new public institutions was driven by a range of practical concerns. For one thing, sparsely settled western states found it more cost-effective to found co-ed schools than sex-segregated institutions. For another, the spread of public primary and secondary schools across the country required an army of teachers, and the nation had turned to women to fill that role. These women, in turn, needed to be trained to teach high school. Regardless of the reasons, by 1880 one-third of all American students enrolled in higher education were women, “a percentage “without parallel elsewhere in the world,” according to one historian.

The accessibility of higher-education institutions for women not only helped train teachers, but also helped seed a revolution in gender roles and the Progressive movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Early female college graduates did not have many career paths open to them; indeed, the majority went on to become homemakers, but their time in college fostered a commitment to public life that encouraged them to take up voluntary activism in their communities. These new graduates invented new public roles for themselves. Young, college-educated women founded settlement houses that offered educational services in urban immigrant communities and early public-health projects such as Lillian Wald’s Visiting Nurses Association.

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In the years following the Civil War, the desire to educate women to be teachers also created new opportunities for black women. Spelman College was founded in Atlanta in 1881 to train African-American women to be teachers in their communities. Black women who graduated from college were much more likely to hold paying jobs than their white counterparts. Where white women privileged enough to attend college in these years were likely to ultimately marry men who could support them in the home, black women were more likely to have to contribute to their families’ income because of the economic discrimination their husbands faced. Even with these extra demands on their time, they too went on to found and foster movements for equality. For example, Mary Church Terrell, who graduated from Oberlin in 1884, helped found the NAACP.

American women continue to benefit from trailblazing female college graduates. Today, for myriad reasons, American women are more likely to enroll in and complete college than men. In 2015, 72.5% of female recent high school graduates were enrolled, compared to 65.8% of recent male graduates. In 2017, women made up about 56% of students on college campuses. In every ethnic and racial group in the country, by age 31 women are more likely than men to have received a college degree.

But women also hold a disproportionate amount of student debt: they now hold almost two-thirds of the $1.6 trillion student debt load. There are many reasons for this. From the start, women rely on loans to finance higher education more than men. One 2017 study found that families with girls were significantly less likely to save for their children’s college education than families with boys.

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Even when men and women finish college with the same amount of debt, it generally takes women longer to pay off their loans. According to an AAUW study, one year after graduation, “women college graduates working full-time are paid 18% less than their male peers.” In the following years that gap only widens. This problem is even more daunting for Black women, who typically make 61 cents for every $1 dollar a white man makes. With less income to turn to, it naturally takes women longer to pay down their loans. As long as the job market remains discriminatory, women and students of color who take on the same amount of debt as white men will end up paying more in the long term as the interest on their loans compounds.

Women thus have a particular interest in recent proposals to make college free and address existing student debt levels. In addition to the sweeping proposals on the table, smaller tweaks — for example making sure childcare is included in student cost-of-living calculations — would make a big difference to women. (Women are significantly more likely to enroll in college with young children than men are.)

The history of American women and higher education demonstrates how higher education can be an engine not just of individual opportunity but also of social innovation. Early public investments in higher education made higher education accessible to women. That investment not only helped fill an intended social need by training thousands of teachers, but also helped foster social change in unanticipated ways. Today, at best, debt levels constrain students’ options after graduating; too often, cost deters students from completing a degree at all. As a result, both the public and individual benefits of higher education are reduced.

Proposals like free college suggest Americans may be ready for a major public reinvestment in higher education. Women stand to particularly benefit from such a reinvestment — but, if history is any indication, what they do with that change will benefit America too.

Historians’ perspectives on how the past informs the present

Suzanne Kahn is the deputy director of the Great Democracy Initiative and Education Program at the Roosevelt Institute

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