This is the first part of a week-long series on higher education costs in New Jersey.

Over the past few decades, four years at college has gradually become the normal path for students exiting high school, but is that path absolutely necessary in order for them to succeed? Throughout this week, I'll be trying to answer the common question of whether or not college is worth it (specifically, four-year institutions). There are many angles to consider, and I will cover them all. Let's begin by looking at the cold, hard numbers.

Campus of Monmouth University in West Long Branch, NJ (Townsquare Media)

The United States Department of Labor releases, by month, employment status updates for all levels of educational attainment.

Looking at the last complete month, January 2013, the seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate was 12 percent among civilians who are at least 25 years old and have not earned a high school diploma.

Jobless Rate and Education

From there, the jobless rate drops as the educational achievements increase. For high school graduates in that age group, and no college, the unemployment rate was 8.1 percent. The rate dropped to 7 percent for those who earned an associate degree or spent a brief time at college. Those with a bachelor's degree completely dominated in terms of population and jobs; the group of close to 49 million experienced an unemployment rate of 3.7 percent in January.

By 2018, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, New Jersey will rank second in the nation for the proportion of jobs requiring a bachelor's degree.

It can easily be argued that employment is the main reason anyone attends college at all, and the more time one puts into their post-secondary schooling, the more they hope to get out of it in terms of salary.

Paul Shelly and Michael Klein of the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities (Townsquare Media)

Michael Klein, Executive Director of the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities, said New Jersey in 2010 had the second-highest median annual wages earned by bachelor's degree-holders between the ages of 25 and 64.

"That's a wage of $65,388," Klein said.

Someone with a high school diploma or General Educational Development (GED) was earning a median income of $29,755.

"That's a huge gap," said Klein. "In fact, it's the largest gap in the country."

Nationally, Klein noted that workers with at least a bachelor's degree tend to earn close to twice as much as someone with only a high school diploma. He said someone with a four-year degree, over a lifetime, can earn 84 percent more money.

"There will be anecdotal evidence of individuals who have, without a college degree, made great progress and led corporations," said the Association's Director of Communications and Marketing Paul Shelly. "But the averages tell a different story."

The several paragraphs above present a strong argument for the four-year route, but college isn't free. The price tag at a four-year institution is the reason one must ask the question, "Is college worth it?" Tomorrow, I'll examine the affordability (or lack of affordability) of education beyond a high school diploma.