If you've been reading the news, you're no doubt aware that millions of U.S. college graduates are drowning in student debt with no relief in sight. And as tuition costs continue to rise, it's increasingly difficult to earn a degree without taking out some amount of student loans. 

But at what point do you say to yourself that spending tens of thousands of dollars on a college degree just isn't worth it? Here's how to determine if obtaining that degree is a good use of your money, or whether you're better off finding a way around college. 

A large group of college graduates dressed in their caps and robes.

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Do you need a degree for the profession you're interested in?

First, let's talk about what you want to do with your life after pursuing a degree. If your goal is to go into a family business, or pursue a specific trade that can't be taught in a lecture hall, then college may not be worth the cost. 

Imagine, for example, that you're looking to work in plumbing or contracting. You might take certain courses in college that broaden your intellectual horizons and give you tips for marketing your services, but at the end of the day, you don't need a four-year degree to earn a living installing pipes or finishing basements. 

As such, if know that this type of vocation right for you, trade school is probably a better investment, assuming you need it. Often, you can work as an apprentice in your field for a period of time, obtain the right licenses, and get out of paying for education beyond high school without limiting your earnings potential. 

Will a degree earn you more money?

Let's assume that you're not looking to pursue a trade that falls into the above category. At that point, you have a tougher decision to make. For example, you could try to find an entry-level role at a company that doesn't require a degree, work your way up, and build skills based on experience, as opposed to paying the price to learn about them in a classroom. 

But will you even manage to snag that entry-level job without a degree? It's hard to say. These days, many companies mandate degrees even if they don't actually relate to the work at hand. It's frustrating, but it's also reality, so you'll need to consider that your job prospects may be really limited if you don't attend college. 

Furthermore, there's plenty of data out there to the fact that college graduates generally earn more than those without degrees. In fact, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York recently reported that in the past few years, the average college graduate with a bachelor's degree earned about $78,000 a year, whereas the average non-degree holder earned an average of $45,000. That's a huge discrepancy. 

Now, let's think about the cost of college. Tuition and fees for an in-state, four-year public school average $10,440 for the 2019-2020 academic year. Assuming those hold mostly steady in the near future, that's about $42,000 for a four-year degree. If that degree then buys you an additional $33,000 a year in earnings, you'll have the opportunity to recoup that $42,000 investment in a fairly short period of time, and then continue to earn a higher salary for the remainder of your career. 

Even if you rack up some amount of student debt to pay for college, to the point where that $42,000 becomes $52,000, or even a bit more, when you factor in interest on your loans, that's still an investment you can more than make up for by boosting your earnings by over $30,000 a year. 

The takeaway? Though college is expensive, it's often worth the cost, especially if you choose a less pricey school. Ultimately though, you'll need to think about your own career goals and crunch some numbers to see if obtaining a degree really makes sense for you.