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In his June 9 column, Myron Medcalf rightly points out that the higher education landscape is changing and asks, "What should we tell young people about the future of higher education?" My answer: If you can, go to college. Despite challenging headwinds facing the sector, a college degree is the single most powerful pathway in our country to social mobility.

A popular argument against higher education is that a degree is too costly. But that assertion reveals a lack of understanding. Sure, the full-tuition sticker prices of colleges and universities cited by naysayers sound frightening. However, very few students — especially at private institutions — pay the full sticker price. The majority of students pay less than half, making private schools often more affordable than large public universities. This is because philanthropy — mostly from grateful alumni — allows for generous financial aid. On top of donor-funded scholarships, many students also are eligible for federal Pell grants, state grants and federally subsidized loans at very low rates, should they need additional help to cover costs.

This brings us to a related argument detractors like to deploy: that borrowing for higher education saddles undergraduates with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt. Again, that is not reality. The average student borrowing for a bachelor's degree from an accredited institution graduates with less than $30,000 of debt, payable over 10 years at interest rates lower than a car note or a home mortgage. Those who borrow from unscrupulous lenders or attend unaccredited programs of questionable value may get in over their heads, but the vast majority of borrowers derive great value from student loans.

Obtaining a degree is more affordable than many people think. And the return on investment of time and money is indisputable. Every study that has compared outcomes has shown conclusively that college degree holders earn more over their lifetimes than those who hold only a high school diploma. In addition, the data demonstrate that people with college degrees live longer, are more able to weather job loss and are more likely to own a home. Research after the last Great Recession also showed that a college degree helps to protect against economic downturns.

In addition to all the individual benefits that accrue to college graduates are important collective ones for society. Our country needs educated people for a healthy democracy and a thriving economy. Higher education is an indispensable social good, not just a way for individuals to get ahead.

Instead of debating whether college is worth it, we should be addressing the more important question: How do we make college — and all the benefits graduates enjoy — more accessible to more people?

Just as Medcalf will continue to encourage his daughter to seek a degree after high school, students from every walk of life deserve to be encouraged to invest in their futures through higher education. The chances of a brighter future are indisputably greater if young people enroll in college than if they don't.

Suzanne M. Rivera, who attended college with the help of financial aid, is president of Macalester College in St. Paul.