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 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.
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.
“I’m making the same money as them, but they have student loans they’re paying back that I don’t. So, it definitely seems noticeable,” he said.
At the other end of the spectrum is Zbylut, 48, 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.
“I’m sitting here in traffic. I’ve got a Mercedes behind me and an Audi in front of me and I’m thinking, ‘What did they do that I didn’t do?’” Zbylut said by cellphone from his Chevrolet. He’s been turned down twice for the type of mortgage he needs to buy a home big enough for himself, the fiancee he would have married already if not for his debts, and her 10-year-old son.
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.
“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.
Targeting the soaring cost of higher education, Obama in August proposed the most sweeping changes to the federal student aid program in decades. His plan would link federal money to new college ratings and reward schools if they help low-income students, keep costs low and have large numbers of students earn degrees. Lawmakers in Congress also are debating how to address the issue,.
Nida Degesys, AMSA’s president, graduated in May 2013 from Northeast Ohio Medical University with about $180,000 in loans. The amount has already swelled with interest to about $220,000.
“There were times where this would make me stay up at night,” Degesys said. “The principal alone is a problem, but the interest is staggering.”
Yet, as costly as medical school was, Degesys sees it as an investment in herself and her career, one she thinks will pay off with a higher earning potential.
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.
At a glance
Legislators discuss loans
President Barack Obama and lawmakers in Congress are debating how to address the issue of rising student loan debt, something experts say is contributing to the widening between the rich and everyone else. Some of the proposals:
•Obama has proposed extending the “pay-as-you-earn” repayment plan to all student borrowers. The program limits student loan payments based on income but is currently only available to borrowers who took out loans after October 2007.
•Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has proposed allowing people with high-interest student loans to refinance at today’s 3.86 percent rate and would pay for it by raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans.
•Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., introduced the Federal Student Loan Refinancing Act in May to allow borrowers that received loans under the Direct Loan or Federal Family Education Loan program after July 1, 2006, to consolidate them into one with an interest rate of 4 percent or less. Instead of paying more than $47,600 over the life of a 20-year, $26,000 loan, the borrower would pay $37,800.
•Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., introduced the Student Loan Borrowers’ Bill of Rights Act, which would remove educational loans from the list of debts that can’t be discharged in bankruptcy.
•The Student Right to Know Before You Go Act of 2013, require colleges to offer students cost-benefit analyses of how much they can expect to earn in a field versus how much they will owe.
•Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has called for “student investment plans.” Private investment firms would cover tuition costs that could be repaid as a fixed percentage of a graduate’s income for a set number of years.