This story is part of the New Boom series on millennials in America.
If Noelle Johnson had a bachelor's degree, she'd be able to live closer to work, she says. She wouldn't have to spend so much of her free time hustling for baby-sitting gigs. She'd shop at the farmers market. She'd be able to treat her sister to dinner for once. She and her husband could go on trips together — they'd be able to afford two tickets instead of one.
There are dozens of ways that not having a college degree and dealing with student loans affects Johnson's life.
Johnson, 27, lives in Manassas, Va., and commutes 90 minutes each way by bus and train to Arlington, Va. She likes her job as an office manager at a nonprofit and makes around $40,000 a year. That compares with a national median income of about $34,000 for households led by young adults with some college. The capital region has a higher cost of living as well.
But households led by young college graduates have a median income of about $58,000. And after nine years of changing schools, trying to choose a major, dealing with an illness and managing tuition costs, Johnson has about $20,000 in student loan debt and no degree to show for it.
Millions of millennials are in the same boat. More than 40 percent of households headed by young adults with some college are dealing with student loans. And without the increased earnings that usually come with a college degree, managing even just a few thousand dollars in loans can be a huge challenge.
Richard Fry, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center, says the real impact of student loans for those with no degree isn't even on how much money they make — it's on their overall wealth.
"The 'some college educated' household that doesn't have the student debt? Their net worth is about $10,000, $11,000," he says. "As opposed to that, for the ones that are still sort of servicing their student debt? They have a net worth of about a grand. So you're looking at about a tenfold difference."
Fry says households with student loans are also more likely to have other kinds of debt, like credit card debt and car payments.
That's true of Johnson and her husband. "We've done payday loans, and, you know it just — it gets out of control," she says. The couple also dipped into their rainy day fund. "We had so much more in savings, but we had to put a lot of that toward school."
That's savings, earnings and debt, all going toward tuition — which is higher than ever, and still rising.
That means lots of students like Johnson have to make calculations: Draw school out so there's time to save up — putting yourself at risk for dropping out altogether? Or take on more student loan debt?
When Johnson hit the $20,000 mark, she realized she needed to step back.
"I had to say, 'Well, I can't take out any more loans and I definitely don't have the cash for it.' So I have to stop, and then save, and then pay for that semester, and then do that all over again," she says.
She's still at it, and she has a plan to get to graduation. Her job has a tuition reimbursement program, she says, "but that means I do need to be able to pay first, so we're just working on getting some money together so I can pay for my next semester, and then it'll be reimbursed."
She has about 1 1/2 years to go to finish her bachelor's in nonprofit management at Liberty University. "I think I'll be able to knock it all out pretty easily," Johnson says.
Fry of Pew says it's a good idea for students not to drag out attaining a degree for too long. "Most people who are going to finish bachelor's degrees, they've got 'em by age 30."
Ultimately, though, how long it takes you to finish matters less than whether you do.
"For a bachelor's degree, you're looking at at least an extra $600,000, $800,000 over a working life, compared to if you'd stopped your education at high school," Fry says. "College is expensive, but it's a good investment."
Johnson has no illusions that finishing her degree is going to make her rich or solve all her problems. "I don't expect, because I have a B.A., I'm going to make an exorbitant amount of money."
But she does think it will relieve some of the paycheck-to-paycheck pressure she and her husband feel every month. They'll be able to build their nest egg back up and think about having kids.
"I really want it to work. We really want to be able to be successful," she says. "I know that having my degree is definitely going make the difference. ... It's going to do everything for us."
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
What's worse than being a graduate with lots of student loan debt? Having lots of student loans and no degree. More than 40 percent of millennials who describe themselves as having some college have such debt. Without the increased earnings they could make with a degree, it's that much harder to pay off even just a few thousand dollars in loans. NPR's a Selena Simmons-Duffin has this report for our series on millennials, New Boom.
SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: An unfinished bachelor's degree can affect pretty much every aspect of your life. Let me introduce you to two people.
NOELLE JOHNSON: My name is Noelle Johnson. I'm 27 and I live in Manassas, Virginia.
JOHNSON: My name is Noelle Johnson.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: OK, they're the same person, but one is real-life Noelle with student loans and no degree and the other is...
JOHNSON: In this alternate Noelle universe.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Where she knocked out her degree in four years. So let's compare them. Present-day real-life Noelle is an office administrator at a nonprofit, a salaried job.
JOHNSON: I think that I'm stuck between 40 and 45.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She works in the D.C. area, where incomes are higher. The national average is 31,000 for people with some college. If she had a B.A...
JOHNSON: I think I would be at a manager level. I would be making more money.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She would. Young college grads make 58,000 a year, on average. At the lower pay grade, she has to live a long way from work. Her commute is an hour-and-a-half by bus and train each way. With a B.A., making more money...
JOHNSON: I would be living some place that was closer to work, that I'd be able to afford.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She'd be able to shop at farmer's markets and treat her sister to dinner for once. Instead of hustling for babysitting gigs in her spare time, she and her husband Joseph would probably have kids of their own by now. Instead, she's working on that bachelor's and managing her student loans.
JOHNSON: It's close to $20,000. It's 250 a month.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Millions of millennials are in this situation right now. Richard Fry of the Pew Research Center says the real impact of these loans for those with no degree isn't even on how much money you make, it's on your overall wealth.
RICHARD FRY: Some college-educated household that doesn't have the student debt, their net worth is about 10, $11,000, OK? As opposed to that, for the ones that are still sort of servicing their student debt, they have a net worth of about a grand. So you're looking at about a 10-fold difference.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: He says households with student loans also tend to have other kinds of debt - credit card debt, car payments.
JOHNSON: We've done payday loans and you know, it just - it gets out of control.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: That's Noelle Johnson again.
JOHNSON: We had so much more in savings but we had to put a lot of it toward school.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Savings, earnings, debt - all going towards tuition. That means lots of students have to make calculations. Draw school out so there's time to save up and put yourself at risk for dropping out altogether, or take on more student loan debt.
JOHNSON: I took out too much so I had to say, well, I can't, you know, take out any more loans and definitely don't have the cash for it. So I have to stop and then save and then pay for that semester, and then do that all over again.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Noelle Johnson started out at community college undecided on a major. She switched schools. She had to move home when she got it ill. Plus all that starting and stopping, put together, she's been working towards her degree for nine years.
FRY: Most people who are going to finish bachelor's degrees, they've got them by age 30.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Richard Fry of Pew says the important thing is not how long it takes you to finish, but whether you end up with that degree after all.
FRY: For a bachelor's degree, you're looking at at least an extra 6, $800,000 over a working life compared to if you'd stopped at high school. College is expensive but it's a good investment.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Noelle Johnson has a plan to get to graduation.
JOHNSON: My job does have a tuition reimbursement program which is great, but that means I do need to be able to pay first so we're just working on getting some money together so I can pay for my next semester and then it will be reimbursed.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: In a year-and-a-half she should have her degree in nonprofit management.
JOHNSON: I know that having my degree is definitely going to make the difference. It's going to do everything for us.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She says she really wants to be successful and she needs that bachelor's degree to get where she wants to go.
Selena Simmons-Duffin, NPR News.[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We incorrectly say that Noelle Johnson makes about $10,000 more than the national average for people with some college education and that young college graduates make an average $58,000 a year. The story should have said that the median income for households led by young adults with some college education is about $34,000. And it should have said households led by young college graduates have a median income of about $58,000.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.