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.
"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, 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.
"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.
"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 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.
Harvard Business School's Michael Norton wonders whether greater public awareness of the widening wealth gap in the United States would hasten policy change. Norton conducted a 2011 survey that found that people tend to think wealth is more equally distributed than it is.
But with elected officials from President Barack Obama on down now talking about the wealth gap as an urgent public problem, a more complete picture seems to be emerging, he said.
"Both parties are now saying, perhaps inequality has gotten to the point where it's not fair when people don't have a chance to rise, and we need to do something about it," Norton said.
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, including proposals to allow graduates with high-interest loans to refinance at lower rates.
The American Medical Student Association supports expanding the National Health Services Corps, which provides loan forgiveness in exchange for service in underserved areas.
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.
Elliott says the country needs to re-think college financing options to bring debt down and graduation rates up.
"We can't," he said, "let debt hinder a whole generation of people from beginning to accumulate wealth soon after graduating college."
Thompson reported from Buffalo, N.Y.