The amount Americans owe on student loans is much higher than earlier estimates and could lead some consumers to postpone buying homes, potentially slowing the housing recovery, officials said.

Total student debt outstanding appears to have surpassed $1 trillion late last year, said officials at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a federal agency created in the wake of the financial crisis. That would be roughly 16% higher than an estimate earlier this month by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (see story).

The figure - released last week at the Consumer Bankers Association conference in Austin, Texas - is an early finding from a study of student debt that the bureau plans to release this summer. Bureau officials said the estimate is based on a survey of private lenders, as opposed to other estimates that rely on a sampling of consumer credit reports.

“Young consumers are shouldering much of the punishment in the form of substantial student-loan bills for doing exactly what they were told would be the key to a better life,” said Rohit Chopra, the bureau’s student-loan ombudsman.

More students are taking out loans to pay for college as tuition increases. Undergraduates are limited by the amount they can borrow in federally backed loans. Students also take out private loans, which lack the income-based repayment and deferment options of federal ones, Chopra said.

Excessive student debt could slow the recovery of the housing market, as young people repay money for their education rather than buying homes, added Chopra, who called the results “sobering.”

“Federal student-loan debt isn’t growing just with new originations,” he said. “With so many borrowers unable to keep up with interest payments, debt is growing even for many who have left school.”

CFPB officials say student debt is rising for several reasons, including a surge in Americans going to college in recent years to escape the weak labor market. Also, tuition increases - which many colleges say are needed to offset big cuts in state funding - have many students taking out bigger loans.

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York last month said debt from educational loans in the U.S. rose to $867 billion in the fourth quarter of 2011, based on figures from a sample of data provided by Equifax Inc. The New York Fed also said this month an estimated 10% of the outstanding student loan balance was delinquent in the third quarter.

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