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 to fill holes. But, like the roughly 37 million others in the U.S. saddled with a total of $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."
Allen Aston is one of the lucky ones, having landed a full academic and financial-needs 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," he said.
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. 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. "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," he said.
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.
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. Targeting the soaring cost of higher education, President Barack 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.