The average black household headed by a college graduate has a median wealth of $23,000, about $160,000 less than those of their college-educated white peers, according to a study by New York's New School found.

The finding highlights a grim aspect of the current economy: Members of minority groups who obtain higher education still lag far behind whites in accumulating wealth and obtaining financial stability.

The major driver of the income disparity reason is debt. For minorities, paying off their students loans is an even heavier burden because their parents cannot do as much to help finance their educations. As a consequence, those graduates spend more time paying off their loans, preventing them from acquiring wealth of their own, a situation that could perpetuate itself for generations to come.

"The source of the inequality is ... the intergenerational transfers," said Darrick Hamilton, a professor of economics at the New School. Public policies that have focused on higher education as the pathway to social mobility for minorities have boosted their incomes but ironically held down their median wealth, he said.

A typical black household earning between $54,000-$93,000 a year has a median wealth of $36,000. A similarly situated white household has $136,000 in wealth, which includes salary and total assets, such as property, savings and pensions. As a consequence, black households have less wealth to invest in items such as education. Black college graduates' relative inability to accumulate savings perpetuates the cycle.

"Families with assets buy crucial advantages for their children, such as the ability to obtain a college degree without accruing costly educational debt. Lack of wealth (primarily inherited wealth) prevents many black families from accessing this advantage," according to a study from the New School and Duke University that Hamilton co-authored.

A study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that 44 percent of African-American college graduates born between 1965-97 owed money toward student loans, compared with only 35 percent of similar white graduates. Both groups carried an average debt load of $20,000.

That indebtedness is also less likely to be tied to any future growth in earnings for minorities. Blacks are more likely to be paying off loans for a degree they did not complete than white households, 38 percent to 26 percent.

The disparity is so wide that black households headed by a college graduate have about 33 percent less wealth than white households whose heads dropped out of high school.

The problem of student debt undermining the ability to save is widespread across ethnic groups, and economists are still gauging its implications. There is little with which to compare it. "We've never had a historical era where this much debt has been taken on at this early of an age and for so long," said Diana Elliot, research manager for the Pew Charitable Trusts.