You’ve been told college is good for you. You need to go to college. You must go to college. If you don’t go to college, you will be left behind in terms of career opportunities and lifetime earnings. It’s a bunch of hype, right?

Actually, no. The benefit of earning a college degree isn’t a bunch of hype. Whether you go to an online college or university, or graduate from a more traditional “brick and mortar” type of school – going back to college is quite possibly the best thing you can do for your career and lifetime earning potential. In fact, the typical bachelor's degree recipient can expect to earn about 66 percent more during a 40-year working life than the typical high school graduate over the same 40-year period.

Unsaddling the debt

Yet, for many prospective students, even those focused on taking distance learning courses, facing the upfront tuition costs of college can be daunting. And why shouldn’t they be? 67 percent of students graduating from 4-year colleges and universities take home an average student loan debt load of $23,200.2 Without a long view perspective, it may seem inevitable that going back to college forces you to take on an overwhelming amount of debt. That going forward, any extra money you make by earning your degree will be far overshadowed by the burden of student loan payments.

It doesn’t have to be this way. College can provide a great ROI for you, and can even be improved with a little financial diligence and making choices that help you save money on college. Rest assured, you can go to college and feel confident your money and time is being invested wisely.

Here are 4 guaranteed ways to improve your return on investment (ROI) for college

1. Lower your cost of college

Sound simple? It can be. It’s basic math. The less you pay for college, the less money you need to earn a significant ROI.

Attend a college with lower overall tuition and fees. Simple. Intuitive. The less your overall tuition and fees for college, the less you have to spend.

Take advantage of any and all grant and scholarship money you are eligible for. When you apply for Federal Financial Aid through FAFSA and your financial aid eligibility scores are sent to your preferred colleges, you will be provided with financial aid options at each school you apply to. When you get your financial aid package, look hard at grant versus loan assistance. Don’t leave grant money on the table. Whether your free money comes in the form of a Federal Pell grant, or an institutional scholarship to encourage you to attend a school – it can make a mighty impact on ROI. Also, if you are a veteran eligible for the Post-911 GI Bill or an employee whose employer offers a Tuition Assistance Program, be sure you maximize the use of your benefits so you don’t have to take on any student loan debt at graduation.

"Many students look at the published rate of tuition and fees and assume that the cost of their preferred college is way beyond their budget. That’s not necessarily true."

If you do have to take out a loan for college, pay the interest while still in school. When you take out a school loan, you don’t have to pay any of it back during your in-school grace period; however, lenders still charge interest on unsubsidized loans during in-school deferment and it’s added to the loan balance, causing how much you owe after graduation to grow even larger than the original loan amount. If you can make partial payments while in school, you can owe less when you graduate, and save significant money over the life of the loan, as well as pad your college ROI considerably.

Consider starting out a low cost institution and then transferring those college courses for credit at a later date. With the partnership between online colleges and universities, you can take the basic college courses offered during your first year of college for extremely low costs. Once you complete these online classes for college, you can have them transferred for credit. When it comes to maximizing your ROI, paying under a thousand bucks for your first year of college will go a long way, particularly when you consider that the average yearly cost of tuition and fees at a private 4-year college is $28,500.

Reduce the number of semesters you need to attend college. Motivated students have known for a long time that the fewer semesters it takes for you to earn your degree, the higher your ROI and the quicker you start earning. You can reduce the total number of semesters you attend college by earning college credit before you start. Here’s some of the ways to do just that: take Advanced Placement (AP) courses and pass AP exams, take Prior Learning Assessments (PLA) for credit, pass CLEP exams, or by taking college course for credit at online college course providers and having the courses transferred prior to enrolling in a college or university.

2. Think about financial aid holistically

When it comes to financial aid, what seems to make the most sense doesn’t always make the most cents. Many students look at the published rate of tuition and fees and assume that the cost of their preferred college is way beyond their budget. That’s not necessarily true. It’s what you ultimately are obligated to pay, your true cost after financial aid, that matters.

When it comes to measuring ROI, schools that have the same sticker price, but differences in the amount of grant aid awarded, as well as the number of students receiving it, can provide students with much larger returns on investment.

When it comes to financial aid, grants and scholarship aid will always win out over school loans. Grants and scholarships reduce your overall out-of-pocket cost of college dramatically — and you don’t have to pay them back. Loans, on the other hand, require you to pay them back, with interest, over the life of the loan.

Finally, when financial aid is factored in, you may find that many higher-priced colleges and universities come out on top over ones that offer lower published tuition rates. Apply to the programs that you think are the best fit for you, and compare financial aid packages. You may be surprised which schools offer the best financial aid.

3. Graduate and earn your degree

When you compare the ROI from schools you are considering, whether they are online colleges and universities or traditional programs, you’ll find that the ROI percentages are greatly influenced by graduation rates. College graduates make significantly more money over the course of a lifetime than a high school graduate. If you don’t graduate, you pick up the debt, but not the benefit. It is critically important when you decide to go back to college, or take online classes, to make sure you pick a program that fits your needs in such a way that you can graduate on time, and thereby easily justify an investment in your education.

"College graduates make significantly more money over the course of a lifetime than a high school graduate. If you don’t graduate, you pick up the debt, but not the benefit."

4. Earn a high wage after graduation and throughout your career

It may seem obvious, but it can’t go without saying — the biggest factor affecting ROI is how much a college graduate earns over the course of their lifetime. What you major in, whether you get an associate or bachelor degree and what field you enter upon graduation, can make a significant difference in wages earned.

If you feel conflicted about whether or not going back to college makes sense given your financial situation and career goals, that’s only natural. It’s hard not to lose perspective when you have bills that need to be paid today, and only potential income gains to reassure yourself that going to college is the right thing to do. It can be easy to become cynical about the high cost of college. Resist the temptation to throw in the towel before you start. By becoming informed, and making smart choices upfront, you can be rest-assured of a comfortable ROI from your education down the road.