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Is a College Degree Worth It?

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With college costs on the rise, young Americans are increasingly wondering if a university degree really puts them ahead of the pack. Thanks to a recent spending survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics with millions of data points, the guessing game is over.

We previously dove into the data to see if graduating from high school pays off -- and found, not surprisingly, that it does. (Stay in school, kids!)

Today, we're looking at how college grads make and break their own piggy banks. Leaving debt out of the equation for now, how exactly does having a higher-education degree affect one's work prospects and lifestyle?

The Money

There's no beating around the bachelor degree bush: College grads make a lot more money than non-grads.

The average consumer "unit" (a household of one or more members with shared income) with a college grad pulls in $70,800 a year in after-tax earnings. High school units manage just $36,100 annually, almost half that of their degree-earning adversaries. And while less than 10% of college grads earn less than $20,000 a year, high school grads have a 1-in-4 chance of making $20,000 or less.

While some college grads might make big bucks, university alumni are also better at meeting their families' basic needs. The 2012 poverty level for a family of four was set at $23,050, putting 7% of university graduates below the poverty line, compared to 22% for high school grads.

The Work

Those with a college degree aren't just richer -- they're also more employable. The national unemployment rate reached as high as 8.3% and as low as 7.9% in 2012. But those with an education fared better than the national average Joe and Jane.

While 5.7% of high school grads collected unemployment insurance over the last 12 months, just 3.5% of university graduates filed unemployment claims.

That might be because college grads are, simply put, higher up the employment food chain. Most (36%) classify themselves as "professionals," while 15% are administrators or managers. The largest chunk (22%) of high school graduates are employed as "operators, assemblers, or laborers," followed by 9.2% in administrative jobs.

The Pad

College grads don't all live a life of luxury, but their bigger bucks do translate to above-average abodes. More than 60% of both demographics (both high school and college graduates) live in houses and apartments, but the average university-degree consumer unit enjoys more space: three bedrooms and 1.8 baths, compared to 2.7 beds and 1.5 baths for the average high school grad.

When respondents were asked to estimate a hypothetical monthly rental cost for their home, university alumni's estimates clocked in at an average $1,740, almost 60% more than high school grads' $1,100. And while only 1.5% of college grads reside in public housing, 4% of high school graduates call public projects their home.

The Ride

If they feel the urge to get out of their big house, college grads have it easier. In that population, there are 94 cars for every 100 consumer units. That's higher than the population as a whole, with around 84 cars for every 100 consumer units. High school grads are actually less likely than the general population to own a vehicle. There are only 78 cars to every 100 high school graduate units.

Lower car ownership translates to lower transportation costs. High school grads spend around $2,360 per year on transport, compared to $3,480 for college grads.

The Party

While no one needs money to have fun, university alumni are spendthrifts when it comes to letting the good times roll. College grads spend around $1,060 per year on entertainment, while high school grads let loose with just $480. That means that college grads blow 1.5% of their total after-tax income on entertainment, while high school grads dole out a smaller 1.3%.

On alcohol and tobacco, though, the two cohorts clearly convey their preferences. College grads' $177 average spend on alcohol clocks in $100 ahead of high school grads, but their smoking spending is skimpy. College graduates cough up just $13 a year on tobacco and smoking supplies, a third of high school grads' $39 average.

Stay in school?

University alumni make more money, have better job security, live in bigger houses with more cars, and throw more extravagant parties. Not everyone is cut out for college, but those who can stick with it past high school have a lot to look forward to.

University grads may earn more, but the easiest way to snag long-term earnings is to start investing today. Millions of Americans have waited on the sidelines since the market meltdown in 2008 and 2009, too scared to invest and put their money at further risk. Yet those who've stayed out of the market have missed out on huge gains and put their financial futures in jeopardy. In our brand-new special report, "Your Essential Guide to Start Investing Today," The Motley Fool's personal finance experts show you why investing is so important and what you need to do to get started. Click here to get your copy today -- it's absolutely free.

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