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Student loan debt making US wealth gap more dramatic

College grads hit with large bills

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 are not putting in their retirement savings account.

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They believe they will eventually climb from debt and begin using their earnings to build assets rather than fill holes. But, like about 37 million others in the United States 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 fall.

About 40 percent of households led by those 35 or younger had student loan debt, a 2012 Pew Research Center analysis of government data found.

Zbylut, an accountant-turned-attorney in Glendale, Calif., hasbeen 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.

‘‘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 and the fiancee he would have married already if not for his debts.

‘‘I have more education and more degrees than my father, as does she than her parents, and yet our parents are better off than we are. What’s wrong with this picture?’’ he said.

Student debt is the only kind of household debt that rose in 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 some 20 million Americans who attend college each year, about 12 million borrow, according to the Almanac of Higher Education. Estimates show the average four-year graduate with $26,000 to $29,000 in loans, and some with six figures in debt.

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