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You may experience a case of sticker shock if you are entering the world of college admissions for the first time.

Average annual tuition, room and board and expenses now hover around $50,000 at many four-year private colleges, and $15,000 for public institutions. What you'll pay now for one semester generally covered four full years of college back in the day.

How many of you have wondered if it's really worth $250,000, or even $60,000? This is especially true when you hear the disappointing student graduation rates, or the after-graduation debt figures.

Federal statistics show that just 36 percent of full-time students who started college in 2001 received a bachelor's degree within four years. Even with two extra years, that group's graduation rate only increased to 57 percent.

Even more alarming is that the average student debt at graduation in 2008 was $23,000.

Employment numbers indicate that a college degree is worth the investment. In February 2010, the unemployment rate among those with a least a bachelor's degree was 5 percent, compared to 15.6 percent for those with a high school diploma.

The long-term benefits are even more encouraging. According to a U.S. Census Bureau report, "over an adult's working life, high school graduates can expect, on average, to earn $1.2 million; those with a bachelor's degree, $2.1 million; and people with a master's degree, $2.5 million."

Still, college is not for everyone.

About 80 percent of students ranking in the bottom quarter of their high school class will probably not get a bachelor's degree, or even a two-year associate's degree.

Many such students would be better off being directed to short-term vocational and career training. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, of the 30 fastest-growing jobs in the U.S. in the next decade, only seven typically require a bachelor's degree. These include registered nurses, home health aides, store clerks and customer-service representatives.

Nobody wants to reduce expectations for high school students, or tell them they can't make it in a four-year college. But encouraging them to truthfully evaluate their readiness for college -- academically and financially -- does make sense. Starting out at a community college gives students the tools to succeed and to believe in their own capabilities -- without as much damage to the pocketbook.

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Lee Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. For more information, visit www.collegeadmissionsstrategies.com.