The cost of college has steadily risen over the past decade. It's increased by $7,000 to $34,740 at a four-year private school -- and that's just for tuition and fees -- according to data from the College Board. A state school will cost less, about $10,000 a year for tuition and fees, but that's still a substantial amount of money.

Earning a four-year degree, however, does bring you higher earning power. A person with a bachelor's degree earns an average of $57,026 per year, according to a 2018 Motley Fool article. That's a lot more than the average $34,197 that someone who's only graduated from high school earns.

That's a huge difference, and the good news is that it's possible to earn a bachelor's degree without spending big bucks. That might be an idea worth pursuing if you look at the results of a recent survey from Freedom Financial, which shows that a surprising number of graduates regret they took on debt to earn their degree.

Students in robes throw their hats in the air.

It's harder to celebrate when you have crushing student loan debt. Image source: Getty Images.

Is college worth it?

Many Americans, just under 40%, believe that their college degree was not worth the cost. That includes 25% who feel that way and 14% who strongly do. Only 22% of the just over 2,008 adults surveyed felt strongly that their degree was worth, it while 39% agreed that their four-year degree was worth the cost.

More people are satisfied with the value of their investment in education than aren't, but enough people aren't that it should give us pause. Clearly, there's a huge value in getting a degree, but how much you spend to get to that end goal matters a lot.

College can be a value if you make careful choices. It can be a financial burden that follows you for your entire life if you don't.

A chart shows how many people regret the cost of their college degree.

Image source: Freedom Financial.

What can you do?

When picking a college, it's important to consider your return on investment. If you intend to go into certain high-paying professions -- lawyer, doctor, engineer, and a few others -- your career prospects, as well as your income potential, may be enhanced by going to a pricier top-tier school.

In most cases, though, that won't be worth it, and you should look for cheaper alternatives. State schools are a smart choice. It's also possible to spend two years at a community college before transferring to a four-year college.

Some companies have also begun offering tuition reimbursement or even free college for employees. These programs may not give you access to the priciest schools, but they will give you a chance to earn a degree on someone else's dime.

In the end, that may be much more valuable than the prestige/debt combo you get going to high-priced colleges. In many professions, you need a degree, but very few care where that degree came from. Make smart choices, and you'll be able to start your career with little debt or even debt free, and that allows you a lot more freedom when it comes to deciding what jobs to take.