For a number of local high schools, the speeches are over, the diplomas have all been handed out and the caps and gowns have been put away, leaving some students with one question: What now?

These days, that is often accompanied by another query: Is college really worth it?

It's a fair question, particularly in an age of rising tuition, reduced class listings and escalating student debt, which is approaching $1 billion nationwide. The average student debt is now $25,250 — a hefty price tag for a piece of paper to hang on the wall.

But while questioning the value of a college degree is wise, the answer remains the same: Definitely yes. But as always, it depends on three key things: The college one attends, the degree pursued and the amount of effort one puts into achieving that degree.

Degrees from most established public and private universities still guarantee higher lifetime earnings on average. But not all colleges are the same.

With the rising number of private, for-profit colleges that are more than willing to accept student tuition — as well as federal financial aid — students need to be careful. The same is true of those attending some public colleges where getting a diploma in six years, let alone four, is a challenge. It's easy to end up suddenly disillusioned, unenrolled and deep in debt without a diploma.

However, as Staff Writer Jeremy Hay recently reported, local colleges fare well in calculations concerning the amount of additional money a graduate can expect over a 30-year period, minus what they paid for college. Sonoma State University, for example, has a return on investment of 6.6 percent, while Stanford University has an ROI of 6.9 percent, according to Payscale, an online salary information firm.

Some economists argue the benefits of an undergraduate degree and, in particular, a graduate or post-graduate degree, far exceed these modest numbers.

A study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin last year found that rising college costs have been particularly hard on middle-class families — especially those not poor enough to qualify for financial assistance — there is no debate. Still, a college degree can, on average, boost lifetime earnings by about $1.3 million.

Figures show that the median salary for Sonoma County adults with a high school diploma is $32,354 while for those with a bachelor's degree, the median annual salary is $51,220. For those with a graduate or professional degree, it's more than $63,000.

It remains true that even in a down economy with rising student debt, it's better to have more education than less, even if it means a modest amount of debt at the outset.

Plus, one can't overlook the intangible social and intellectual benefits of achieving a higher degree.

As Santa Rosa Junior College commencement speaker Sylvia Bracamonte noted last weekend, "When we open our minds to being a generation of solution-based, critical thinkers, we are demonstrating the value of our education."

But that's clearly getting to be a harder lesson to teach.