Sara Carlson and her daughter Danica Fillbrandt

Sara Carlson of Brookings started her pursuit of a bachelor’s degree at Concordia College, a private school in Moorhead, Minn., in 2008.

Within a year she’d used all of her college savings and had taken out a loan from the school to help pay tuition. But she also found the school isolating and she suffered mentally. Carlson left school and went home to Brookings to live with her mother, a high school Spanish teacher.

“I came home with nothing,” Carlson said.

She had planned to just drop out of college and start working. But Carlson’s mother refused to let her go without a degree. Carlson’s mother told her she’d be thrown out of the house if she didn’t go back to school.

“It was transfer schools and go to the public school that was more affordable and live off loans for a while or be homeless,” Carlson recalled.

She enrolled at South Dakota State University in 2009, majoring in graphic design. Statistically speaking, Carlson made the right decision. College graduates can expect to make 80 percent more income over their lives than non-graduates, according to national statistics. But much of the so-called “college premium” might be due to falling incomes for non-graduates, according to a 2018 study by the Roosevelt Institute.

That study, called “The Student Debt Crisis, Labor Market Credentialization and Racial Inequality,” found that despite increased numbers of college graduates in the United States, wages haven’t actually increased much. Instead, the study’s authors concluded, more employers are requiring college degrees for jobs that historically didn’t need them, which probably means high school graduates are making less.

Carlson graduated in the fall of 2011, one semester early, with more than $30,000 in student debt. At that year’s interest rate of 6.8 percent, she’ll end up paying close to $50,000 for her education. Carlson said she looked for graphic design jobs but couldn’t find any near her family and friends, a support system she says she needed.

Eventually, Carlson found a job as a cashier at the Runnings department store in Brookings. She worked her way up to a management position — a job she didn’t need a degree for — and makes a bit more than $34,000 per year. She’s been paying $260 per month on her student debt since 2012.

After finding a steady job, Carlson said, she tried to buy a home. She went so far as to apply for an income-based repayment plan for her student debt and could have had her monthly payments reduced to zero. But banks still wouldn’t give her a home loan, she said.

In 2015, Carlson got engaged and was able to buy a home with her husband-to-be. They had a child. Then the relationship soured and now she’s filed for divorce. She doesn’t know how she’ll make ends meet once the divorce becomes final.

Carlson said she had to borrow money from her parents to start her divorce and is hoping that her ex-husband will keep their daughter on his health insurance. Even then, she said, finances remain extremely tight and she often comes up short each month.

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