For decades, there’s been an unwritten rule that if you want a good job, you need a diploma from a four-year college. But with the cost of a post-secondary education continuing to outpace inflation year after year, students and their parents may want to pay extra attention to how they go about getting one.

For the 2014-2015 academic year, the average tuition cost for out-of-state students at a four-year public college will be $22,958, according to the College Board. The tab is even steeper at a private institution, with tuition set to exceed $31,000 on average.

Applicants can add to that the charge for room and board – typically around $10,000 to $11,000 – and a litany of other expenses, such as books and transportation.After four years, students can easily rack up more than $100,000 in expenses to obtain a degree. 

Watch Where You Go

All colleges aren't the same, of course; college costs differ widely depending on what kind of college the student attends (see chart below). Among four-year colleges, in-state public tuition is the least costly. Two-year, in-district schools cost even less.

Average Published Cost for a Full-Time College Student, by Institution Type

Source: College Board 

Still Worth It?

If it seems like the price of a college education is spiraling out of control, it’s not an illusion. Over the past three decades, college costs have risen roughly 7% a year, creating a financial burden many former students find hard to escape. According to one analysis, the cost of attending a university has jumped nearly 500% since 1985. That far exceeds the rate of growth for other expenditures. In fact, the consumer price index increased just 115% during this same period. 

Keep in mind that there are ways to keep costs down. About two-thirds of enrollees receive at least some discount on their tuition bill in the form of grants. And, on average, students pay less than half of the tuition and fees of a private institution if they choose to attend a public university in their home state. See 5 Ways To Get Maximum Student Financial Aid.

Even so, going to college these days is a major financial commitment for most. Students are relying more than ever on loans to help make college possible. According to The Institute for College Access & Success, the average university student graduated with $29,400 of debt in 2012. See All About Student Loans and Top Student Loan Providers 

Is the expense of getting a degree still worth it? In most cases, yes. The median annual wage for a young adult with a college degree was $46,900 in 2012, compared to just $30,000 for one with only a high school diploma. Over the course of a career, that salary differential will more than make up for the high cost of going to college.

That’s not to say that all college graduates see a return on their investment. Research indicates that a student's major can make an enormous difference. An analysis by Salary.com found that engineering, marketing and human resources are among the degrees with the best long-term return on investment. Degrees in communications, psychology and fine arts delivered the lowest returns – at least in financial terms. 

The School Matters

Not surprisingly, the school one attends also has a major effect on how well the investment pays off. a ranking of the 20-year return for colleges by the research firm PayScale (chart below) offers an interesting vantage point.

One notable finding: Some of the nation's most expensive colleges provide the best value. Private institutions such as Harvey Mudd College, the California Institute of Technology, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University provide the best long-term return, according to PayScale, despite costing more than $200,000 over the course of four years. 

Higher costs don't always equate to better financial payoffs, however. For example, Ripon College, a liberal arts school in Wisconsin, and Stetson University in Florida charge fairly typical private-college fees, but actually generate a negative 20-year ROI. Click here to see the full report, including data on majors as well as how a particular school fared against the competition,

Colleges With the Best 20-Year Return on Investment, as of 2014.
(List only includes private schools and out-of-state costs at public universities.)

Source: PayScale 

Critics argue that surveys like these aren’t perfect. For example, a college located in an area with relatively high unemployment may fare worse than those in healthier regions. Still, as a broad indicator of educational value, they can be worthwhile research tools.

With the cost of college skyrocketing in recent decades, it’s debatable whether big-name universities are the answer for all high school graduates looking to advance their education. Two-year colleges offer associate degrees at a fraction of the cost, many in fields that are highly in demand. At the same time, many universities are incorporating online courses into their degree programs, which also can reduce the student’s financial burden. 

For-profits: Costlier Than They Look

One of the most significant trends in higher education has been the growth of for-profit schools. These organizations account for 42% of college students over the past 10 years.

With an average tuition of $15,230, for-profits can look cheap compared to traditional four-year colleges and universities. But upon closer examination, they’re not always the bargain they appear. Often, they offer one- and two-year programs, at much higher cost than your average two-year technical school.

Some critics also contend that students have a harder time finding employment post-graduation. For instance, a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that graduates of a for-profit institution are approximately 22% less likely to get callbacks from a job application compared to those who graduated from public colleges and universities. 

The lesson: Do your homework before choosing this alternative to a traditional school. And always make sure you’re doing a true apples-to-apples comparison when looking at cost.

The Bottom Line

There are many reasons to get a college education. But given the cost, it isn't out of line to consider the investment aspect of post-secondary education. When choosing a college and a major, consider what sort of return you can expect. It’s not a reason to avoid majoring in, say, fine arts, if you really want to. But at least do it with your eyes wide open – and consider a minor or double major that might help you find a good job afterward.

If you are an international student, use this information to compare the cost of studying in the United States with going to university in your home country or somewhere else. (For help with funding, see Private Student Loans For International Students.)