“These kids, even though they have pursued the American dream, they’re starting their careers with hugely unequal amounts of student loan debt,” Houle said. “That could be the difference of a kid who can take an unpaid internship that would put their career on an upward trajectory.”

The caveat with Houle’s study is that he looked only at people who attended some college.

As Houle acknowledges, while those from low-income families who go to college may get out of school with less debt, poorer students are still less likely to go in the first place. If the Georgetown survey shows anything, it’s that graduating with a moderate amount of student debt is still much better than not graduating.

So the lesson isn’t necessarily that the lowest-income students are better off overall: Just 8 percent of those from families in the bottom income quartile (under about $36,000) have earned a bachelor’s degree by age 24, compared to more than 82 percent from the top quartile (roughly $108,000).

But Houle’s study does illustrate the serious bind of families above the very bottom (earning between roughly $36,000 and $65,000). Just 17 percent of those students earn a degree by 24, and they’re racking up more debt in the process.

For more news about college costs, see:

Obama, GOP duel over rising college expenses

Open textbook publisher projects $1M in savings for students

Controlling Costs: News and advice to help campus leaders stem the rising cost of a college education

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