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."
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