Three-quarters of graduates will never pay off their student loans, a report has found.
And most of those that can will still be paying it into their 50s, the Institute for Fiscal Studies said.
Any gains made by poorer students during the controversial 2012 tuition fees system shake-up have been more than wiped out, the IFS probe revealed.
The reforms brought in by the then coalition government originally saw the lowest earning third of graduates better off by £1,500 - but replacing maintenance grants with loans sent debt rates soaring.
This resulted in students from low-income families graduating with the highest debt levels of more than £57,000.
Interest rates were also very high at up to 3% above inflation.
This means the average student who borrows £45,000 ends up paying another £5,800 in interest.
While higher earners may have to fork out £40,000 in interest repayments, the IFS found.
University funding has increased by about 25% per student since 2011, primarily funded by richer graduates, and institutions now receive an average of £28,000 per student per degree.
The report said reducing tuition fees or bringing back maintenance grants would have the advantage of allowing government to target specific students or courses that have wider benefits to society.
"This would, however, significantly increase deficit spending and lead to a smaller, but still considerable, increase in the long-run government contribution," it added.