By the time students leave university they have borrowed more than twice as much as their counterparts in 1994, and the debt burden is expected to grow further.
The reduction in student grants and the increasing availability of special student loans has led to a massive rise in borrowing, according to the survey of 2,400 graduates.
Researchers also found a growing differential between salaries paid to male and female university leavers. While young men earned an average pounds 14,619, women received pounds 12,301 - a difference of nearly 20 per cent.
Despite equality legislation and enhanced awareness of the "gender gap", the differential rose 8 per cent between 1997 and 1998.
The survey for Barclays Bank said the disparity was partly explained by increasing salaries for science, engineering and technology graduates - mostly men - compared with salaries available in areas dominated by women.
The average salary for new graduates in engineering - of whom 85 per cent were male - was pounds 15,225, compared with languages - 78 per cent female - where the pay was pounds 10,633.
The gender differences were also reflected in salary expectations. The average pay expected by male graduates after five working years was pounds 28,119, while female graduates were expecting pounds 22,851 - a difference of 23 per cent.
The report pointed out thatthe huge rise in borrowing by students was detected before the introduction last September of pounds 1,000-a-year fees.
Graduate borrowing levels increased by 103 per cent between 1994 and 1998, by which time they owed a total of pounds 814m. The average debt was pounds 4,497 last year, compared with pounds 2,212 in 1994.
Some 79 per cent of 1998 graduates had borrowed an average pounds 2,865 from the Student Loan Company. Nearly 60 per cent had borrowed money from their main bank and owed an average of pounds 1,112.
Barclays found, however, that attitudes to borrowing had become more relaxed over the past five years and that graduates recognised both the costs and benefits of attending university.
Fourteen per cent more university leavers were "comfortable or unconcerned" about their borrowing levels in 1998 than their counterparts in 1994.
The market for graduates was relatively buoyant. The average number of job applications per student had declined from 27 in 1994 to 17 last year.
The survey found that 89 per cent of graduates found jobs in the first six months after graduation and that salaries over the past five years had risen broadly in line with inflation.
The average salary last year was pounds 13,388 a year - an increase of pounds 1,919, or 17 per cent, since 1994. Graduates who found work in their "preferred career" were on pounds 15,551, 16 per cent more than the average salary.
This compared with a difference of 10 per cent in 1994 when those entering their preferred career earned an average of pounds 12,665 a year.
Students were more concerned with gaining immediate employment than getting the ideal job. The percentage in "stop-gap" jobs had risen by 12 per cent since 1994, while the number of graduates who went into their preferred career had fallen by 7 per cent.
Darrell Pulver, manager of Barclays graduate banking, warned that borrowing levels were likely to increase as the impact of tuition fees was felt.Reuse content