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It is incredibly costly not to go to college in the United States.

The gap in earnings between college graduates and those with a high school diploma or less has never been more severe, according to a new analysis from the Pew Research Center.

But the rising cost of college and the burgeoning student debt problem beg the question: is college worth it?

That's a particularly acute question for students who must take out loans to pay for their degrees.

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The short answer for young people right now is yes, college is worth it.

Millennials with at least a bachelor's degree earn $45,500 on average, according to Pew, but that drops to $28,000 for high school graduates. The unemployment rate for people with a high school diploma is more than three times the rate for college grads, as is the share living in poverty.

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Those figures might not sounds surprising, but they do highlight a real issue.

It is becoming much more difficult to launch a career and earn a living with just a high school diploma. Pew also points out, disconcertingly, that millennials with a college degree are very likely to say their job is a career or steppingstone to a career. More than 40 percent of those with just a high school diploma, however, say their work is just a job to get by.

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It's now much harder to save money for retirement or big purchases like houses and cars, than it was a generation ago. Today's high school graduates are doing worse both than previous generations of high school graduates in general and in relation to their college-educated peers.

The good news is that the proportion of young people who earn a college degree is rising. A full third of today's millennials have at least a bachelor's degree. The bad news is that earnings have remained relatively stagnant. Where a millennial today can expect to earn about $35,000, early Boomers earned around $34,883.

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Why?

According to Pew, it's not that the value of a college degree has risen, it's that the value of a high school education has dropped dramatically. Earnings for those with a high school diploma have actually dropped.

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With the way society is structured right now, college is a young person's best bet at success.

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And according to a new report from Hamilton Place Strategies on the cost of college, even if rising college costs remain the norm, a four-year degree will still be worth its cost until 2086. Hopefully there will be some meaningful higher education reforms before then that help make college more affordable.

Until then, students should keep several things in mind.

Look at overall value - expensive tuition does not always mean good school. Conversely, there are great schools with relatively low tuition. Doing some research up front can save you from thousands of dollars of student loan debt later.

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Taking out loans to pay for school can be a smart decision, but read all the fine print in the loans you take out. Federal loans tend to have the best interest rates.

It might sound harsh and runs counter to the "follow your dreams" mantra that so many young people in the United States have been brought up on, but majors matter. People with science and engineering degrees are far more likely to have jobs that relate to their major and they tend to earn more. The STEM fields are also hiring, whereas there is limited demand for history majors.

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It's not for everyone, but some people have turned to crowdsourcing to pay for school and others to a pay-as-you go model.

Pew also asked students what they could do to increase their chances of landing a great job after graduation. Many said they should have gotten more work experience during school. Students also said they should have studied harder and started the job hunt earlier.

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Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.