Asking the right questions before deciding on a college or career school path can increase the return on investment for higher education.

Numerous studies and the US Bureau of Labor Statistics data have illustrated that point for years.

But now as many students and their parents contemplate the next steps after high school, more of them are trying to determine the return on investment for various education options. The rising cost of post-secondary education coupled with the massive amount of debt that college students are acquiring has more families asking how much bang they will get for their schooling buck. It's a question that should be addressed by anyone-even existing members of the workforce seeking to gain more education, say career counselors and financial planners.

Degrees talk

The median income for young college graduates was $45,500-or about $17,500 more a year-than their peers with only high school diplomas, according to a Pew Research Center study released last year. Workers in the same age group, 25-32, who had some college or a two-year degree had a median wage of $30,000 annually.

The median weekly wage of a person 25 or older with a bachelor's degree is $1,101 or about $57,000 a year, according to the BLS. The weekly pay rises steadily with more education. A person with a professional degree brings home about $85,000 a year, according to the government agency.

"It's not just college-any post-secondary training-anything after high school gives you more opportunities," says Brenda Gerhardt, owner of Gerhardt Educational Endeavors in Upper Arlington.

It's a combination of the schooling and some of the soft skills like responsibility and dependability that make people with degrees and certificates more attractive to employers, adds Dustin Dunlavy, admissions manager at Central Ohio Technical College. "The overall message is that education raises your value," he says. "It's very important to get that post-secondary degree."

Defining ROI

Salary is an important consideration, but Dunlavy and other advisors say return on investment should be about more than dollars and be unique to each student. Education should lead to career possibilities that are fulfilling and attainable, they say.

When determining the value of schooling, cost also must play a role. Individuals need to set a budget for their education, says Marc Ziegler, president and CEO of Midwest College Planning in Columbus. They also need to know what they are hoping to achieve when they are finished with their schooling.

If the goal is a middle class lifestyle, then students and their families need to consider many options-not just a four-year college degree, says Mark Schneider, president of Maryland-based College Measures, a partnership between the American Institutes for Research and Matrix Knowledge that focuses on using data to improve higher education outcomes. Many certificate or associate degree programs can offer affordable pathways to a solid career, says Schneider.

Those evaluating a master's degree must not only look at their professional goals but consider how their employer and industry perceive advanced degrees, the experts say.

Considerations

As the majority of students graduate from college with student loan debt, it's critical to choose their college wisely, Ziegler says. About 70 percent of 2013 graduates had an average of $28,400 in debt, according to a study by the Institute for College Access and Success. "There are enough great schools that you can get down to a price point" that works for your family, Ziegler says.

Families must evaluate schools based on the performance of past students, Ziegler says, asking about retention and graduation rates, job offers and salaries. Schools with a strong tradition of graduating students in four years and solid data about the employability of their graduates may be a better bet than a slightly less expensive school without that. "I'll pay an extra $5,000 a year if I know my kid is going to walk out of there with a job," Ziegler says.

Make sure the data provided is on a "program level," Schneider adds. Employment opportunities and potential salaries vary greatly by major, he says. It's not realistic to compare a student who graduates with an engineering degree to one who studied art history-even if they attended the same university, he says. Students who study petroleum engineering can expect a starting salary of $103,000 while an art history major averages about $36,900, according to payscale.com, which offers benefits and compensation information online. It's one of many services available in recent years to help students evaluate careers. Its rankings demonstrate the value of degrees in fields oriented to math and science.

If a family needs to borrow money to pay for tuition, a good rule of thumb is to not borrow more money than the average starting wage of the student's planned career, adds Gerhardt. Students also can consult the labor bureau to get an understanding of starting salaries and projected employment needs for various desired professions, she says. A degree in a field with real need for workers will likely be worth more than a field flooded with job candidates.

Schools should demonstrate knowledge about employability and have services in place to help students find and obtain internships and jobs, she says. Be wary of schools that don't address jobs on their website or during college visits, she says. "Career services has become a very important piece," says Gerhardt.

Career Training

Career and technical schools have long touted their ability to land students jobs upon graduation. It's time for families to listen to that message, Schneider says. Earning an associate degree or a technical certification tends to be "cheaper and faster," he says.

The average cost of a trade school degree is $33,000. The degrees, which are usually earned in two years, can lead to jobs with a median salary of $35,720, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. PayScale also offers salary rankings for two-year degrees as well as statistics on mid-career wages-many of which reach $50,000 to $70,000 a year.

Consider programs that have work experience built in, Gerhardt says. They may take longer but they give students the opportunity to work in the field. Work experience helps students know if they've chosen the right career and can make a big difference in the interview process, she says.

Dunlavy agrees. "Experience while you're getting your education is really very important," he says. "It gives you a true feel for whether you're going to enjoy that career."

Advanced degrees

Those established in the workplace are not exempt from seeking another degree.

The right advanced degree is one with measurable benefits, says David Schwantes, MBA director at Capital University in Bexley. The university offers a part-time MBA program geared to working professionals. The university has found that graduates with 10 years of work experience and an MBA from Capital earn an average salary of about $105,000-about $38,000 more than its graduates with a bachelor's degree in business with the same amount of work experience. A pay raise or the ability to advance your career more quickly would be obvious benefits, he says. There also are intangible benefits of returning to the classroom and interacting with professors and professionals from other fields. It's a great opportunity to network and grow your skills, he says.

Before starting a master's program, examine how your employer and your industry treat advanced degrees, says Janine Moon, a career coach and owner of Workforce Exchange in Columbus. Look for evidence that it will lead to better opportunities or an increased salary, she says. She cautions against getting a master's degree as a way to hold onto a job.

"It's not the distinguisher it once was," she says. "That's not to say people shouldn't pursue it if they can make a good case for it. But doing it to recession-proof yourself-that's wishful thinking."

Melissa Kossler Dutton is a freelance writer.