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The roughly 37 million Americans saddled with $1 trillion in student loan debt may never catch up with wealthy peers who began life after college free from the burden. Experts say that disparity is contributing to the widening of the U.S. wealth gap.

University of Kansas researcher William Elliott III says that the median 2009 net worth for a household without student debt was nearly three times the worth in a household with such debt.

He says that debt-free graduates can begin building equity in housing or stocks and bonds and get more time to see their investments grow, while indebted graduates spend years paying principal and interest.

A 2012 Pew Research Center analysis found that about 40 percent of households led by someone 35 or younger have student debt.

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