Average college graduate's debt: $24,000

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Higher education equals higher lifetime earning potential.

This is what many of us believe, and it's supported by studies conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, among others. As such, the cost of a college education is considered an investment in the future.

But as college debt levels rise to historic levels, some are beginning to question the return.

Project On Student Debt reports that 2009 college graduates -- the last year for which data was available -- left school with an average $24,000 debt.

This figure represents debt from student loans only; credit card debt and other financial obligations are not included.

And student loan debt is likely to top a trillion dollars this year, The New York Times reported last week.

Despite reaching levels never before seen, college debt is still considered a necessary burden.

“People with college degrees earn more and are far less likely than others to experience unemployment," according to the College Board Advocacy & Policy Center. "The gaps have widened in recent years…"

College debt presents a burden for graduates, but it's still well worth the cost.

The same cannot be said for students who take on debt only to drop out before earning their degrees. Without the benefit of a degree and subsequent higher earnings, these young adults saddled with student loan debt face an uphill battle in establishing financial solvency.

Graduates struggling to repay student loans might be able to save money by consolidating debts.

Low-earning borrowers may also qualify for repayment plans based on income with a portion of the debt forgiven.

In addition, several public and private organizations offer student loan repayment assistance.