Every month that Gregory Zbylut pays $1,300 toward his law school loans is another month of not qualifying for a decent mortgage.
Every payment toward their student loans is $900 that Dr. Nida Degesys and her husband aren’t putting in their retirement savings account.
They believe they’ll eventually climb from debt and begin using their earnings to build assets rather than fill holes. But, like the roughly 37 million others in the U.S. saddled with $1 trillion in student debt, they may never catch up with wealthy peers who began life after college free from the burden.
The disparity, experts say, is contributing to the widening of the gap between rich and everyone else in the country.
"If you graduate with a B.A. or doctorate and you get the same job at the same place, you make the same amount of money," said William Elliott III, director of the Assets and Education Initiative at the University of Kansas. "But that money will actually mean less to you in the sense of accumulating assets in the long term."
Graduates who can immediately begin building equity in housing or stocks and bonds get more time to see their investments grow, while indebted graduates spend years paying principal and interest on loans. The standard student loan repayment schedule is 10 years but can be much longer.
The median 2009 net worth for a household without outstanding student debt was $117,700, nearly three times the $42,800 worth in a household with outstanding student debt, according to a report co-written by Elliott last November.
About 40 percent of households led by someone 35 or younger have student loan debt, a 2012 Pew Research Center analysis of government data found.
Allen Aston is one of the lucky ones, having landed a full academic and financial-need scholarship at Ohio State University. The 22-year-old software engineer from Columbus estimates it let him avoid about $100,000 in debt.
Without loans to repay, Aston is already contributing 6 percent of his salary to a retirement fund that is matched in part by his employer and doesn’t have the same financial concerns his friends do.
At the other end of the spectrum is Zbylut, an accountant-turned-attorney in Glendale, Calif. He’s been chipping away at nearly $160,000 in student debt since graduating in 2005 from law school at Loyola University in Chicago. Now 48, the tax attorney estimates he could have $150,000 to $200,000 in a 401(k) had the money he’s paid toward loans gone there.
Student debt is the only kind of household debt that rose through the Great Recession and now totals more than either credit card or auto loan debt, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Both the number of borrowers and amount borrowed ballooned by 70 percent from 2004 to 2012.
Of the nearly 20 million Americans who attend college each year, about 12 million borrow, according to the Almanac of Higher Education. Estimates show that the average four-year graduate accumulates $26,000 to $29,000 in loans, and some leave college with six figures worth of debt.
The increases have been driven in part by rising tuition, resulting from reduced state funding and costlier campus facilities and amenities. Compounding the problem has been a trend toward merit-based, rather than need-based, grants as institutions seek to attract the higher-achieving students who will boost their standings.
"Because there’s a strong correlation in this country between things like SAT scores or ACT scores and wealth or income, the (grant) money ends up going disproportionately to students from wealthier families" who tend to perform better on those tests, said Donald Heller, dean of the Michigan State University College of Education.
Those factors, along with stagnating family incomes and declining savings, have made student loans a much bigger part of funding higher education, Elliott said.
College degrees can pay off. College graduates ages 25 to 32 working full time earn $45,500, about $17,500 more than their peers with just a high school diploma, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of census data.
Elliott says the country needs to re-think college financing options to bring debt down and graduation rates up.