Hannah Gatens, a 2014 graduate of Christopher Newport University, discusses the cost of college and the possibilities of post-graduate life.

Hannah Gatens loved college and makes no apologies for getting her degree in communications. She thinks her degree was worth it, even though she's a little disappointed she didn't score a full-time job right after school.

The 22-year-old graduated from Christopher Newport University in May and now works part time as a waitress and also helps out a local public relations firm to make ends meet.

"I guess I always kind of thought, you graduate college and jump into a full-time job. I guess that's how it worked in TV shows. It's harder and more intimidating when you're facing graduation — easier said than done," she says.

A new study released by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York says Gatens is correct: The cost of college is still a solid, worthwhile investment, despite rising tuition costs and increasing student debt loads.

In Virginia, the average costs of tuition and fees have skyrocketed in recent years. But education experts said there are still ample reasons to encourage students to pursue a degree, despite the price tag.

Rising costs

The study conducted by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York concludes that a college degree is still worth the investment based on the rate of return for a four-year degree.

The Fed economists looked at the money and time a student  spends in college as an investment. The return measures the payoff from that investment in the same way a business-owner looks at spending on new equipment, by focusing on the difference between what college graduates earn compared to high school graduates.

"The return to a bachelor's degree averaged about 9 percent during the 1970s, and then nearly doubled to about 16 percent by 2001, and has remained at around 14 to 15 percent for the past decade," researchers Jaison R. Abel and Richard Deitz write in the report.

"Over the past four decades, those with a bachelor's degree have tended to earn 56 percent more than high school graduates, while those with an associate's degree have tended to earn 21 percent more than high school graduates," they wrote.

The report says when adjusted for inflation, the nationwide sticker price for a bachelor's degree has nearly tripled since the 1970s, from $4,600 per year to roughly $15,000 in 2013. In terms of net tuition costs, the amount of money actually spent by graduates when accounting for financial aid that doesn't have to be paid back, the average cost has risen from $2,300 per year to $6,500 per year.

During the past decade tuition costs have more than doubled in Virginia. In 2003, the average annual cost of tuition with fees at a public college or university was about $4,764, according to data provided by the State Council on Higher Education for Virginia, also known as SCHEV.

But in 2013, the average price climbed to $9,361. "Virginia is typically a high-tuition state," said Dan Hix, finance policy director for SCHEV.

Hix said the rise in tuition costs is due in part to the fact that General Assembly general fund revenues devoted to public colleges and universities have not risen substantially over the past decade.

"Despite entering the labor force at a later age, workers with a bachelor's degree on average earn well over $1 million more than high school graduates during their working lives, while those with an associate's degree earn about $325,000 more," Abel and Deitz said.

Declining wages

But from 2001 to 2013, Deitz and Abel said average wages earned by bachelor's degree recipients have declined by more than 10.3 percent.

The wages earned by those with a high school diploma dropped at a slightly lower 7.6 percent over the same time period. But despite the disparity, the report says bachelor's degree holders earn significantly more than high school graduates.

Deitz and Abel caution that while degrees in science, technology, engineering and math — commonly referred to as STEM — yield a higher rate of return. "We emphasize that not all majors are feasible for every college student," the report says. They cite research suggesting that math and science degrees are more difficult to obtain than other disciplines.

Hannah Gatens said some college students get pressure at home to seek more lucrative degrees.