University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Source: Flickr user Yeungb

When the going gets tough, the tough go to college. New government data released this week highlights the stark opportunity gap between those who go to college and those who don't. Here are five reasons higher education is the best way to go.

1. Your competition is going
The days of heading into the working world straight from high school are gone. Regardless of whether or not anyone learns anything in college, there's something to be said for simply keeping up with the competition. A full 66% of recent high school graduates are currently attending university, making college the status quo for 2 million of the 3 million recent high school alumni.

2.  You're not ready to work


Suzzallo Library at University of Washington. Source: Flickr user Wonderlane

No one's saying that sitting through lectures and studying through the night is easy, but going to college isn't work. While 74% of recent high school grads either have a job or are looking for one, only 34% of college students count themselves in that category. Financial aid, tax breaks, and student loans are all there to keep kids in college -- regardless of employment. And with higher future expected earnings, most college students are OK with delaying work today in order to reap more impressive returns after graduation.

3. But you want to work eventually
When it comes to future employment opportunities, a college degree goes a long way. The unemployment rate for recent high school graduates clocks in at a whopping 31% -- almost five times the national 6.7% rate. Even with its rock-bottom economy, Spain enjoys a lower national unemployment rate (25.6%) than the U.S.' recent high school alumni. And for those Americans currently in college, their employment odds are already improving. The unemployment rate for enrolled college students drops down to 8.6%.

4. And you want to make more money

Victor Dubreuil, Money to Burn (1893).

These days, a job by itself is reason to celebrate. But a closer look at the earnings gaps between high school and college grads should be enough to make any aspiring college student review their applications one more time. According to the latest government data on wages and salaries, high school graduates age 25 and over earn an average of $660 per week, compared to $1,199 for college grads

 According to 2008 U.S. Census Bureau data, over their working lives, high school grads earn an average of $1.4 million, while bachelor degree holders make another $1 million on top of that. Add on a master's degree and you can expect to earn another $400,000. And a Ph.D.? On average, that will earn you $3.4 million throughout your lifetime.

5. You actually want to learn
Ironically, it seems as if learning is increasingly an afterthought in higher education. Employment and earnings aspirations aside, a college education can provide you with an exciting environment for intellectual stimulation. Personal edification is important -- and whether it's art, engineering, or economics, academia provides a unique opportunity to let you explore your passion for years to come.