Student loan debt dragging on young households

The pain and big payoff of student loan debt
The pain and big payoff of student loan debt

Younger Americans who are still paying off student loans have a lot less money—and a lot more overall debt—than those who don't have any student loans, a new report finds.

It's not clear why, but the report from Pew Research Center said one possible explanation is that people paying off hefty student loans have trouble gaining financial footing because they are bogged down by those college bills. Another possibility is that, as more people go to college, the wealth gap between those who borrow for college and those who don't is widening.

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The Pew report found that nearly 4 in 10 households headed by a person under 40 has some student loan debt, a record high. The median student loan debt for that group was about $13,000.

The difference between those households and the ones with no student loan debt was striking.

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Among college graduates, the report found that younger households with student loan debt had a median net worth of $8,700. For college grads without student loans to worry about, median net worth was $64,700.

The college graduates with student loan debt also had nearly twice as much overall debt as those without student loans. The median total debt for those younger households was $137,010, compared with $73,250 for those without student loans. Total debt include things such as mortgages, car loans and credit card debt.

The Pew analysis was based on the 2010 Survey of Consumer Finances, a detailed look at Americans' financial well-being.

It did offer one bright spot for those burdened by student loan debt: They are making a lot more money than those who didn't get a college degree at all.

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The Pew researchers found that the typical household income of college-educated households with student loan debt was $57,941, compared with $32,528 for those headed by someone without a bachelor's degree.

That's in keeping with other Pew research showing that despite the costs, it pays to go to college — perhaps more than ever.

—By CNBC's Allison Linn.