A college degree might not be the golden ticket it once was, but for most, it’s still virtually essential to financial success. As the Bureau of Labor Statistics noted in its report Characteristics of Minimum Wage Workers, 2013, in that year, 260,000 proud recipients of a college or professional degree worked at jobs paying the federal minimum wage: $7.25 per hour.

How could a college degree possibly be worth the rapidly escalating cost if nothing but a minimum wage job waits at the end of the line? Time writer Andrew Rotherham shared a few clues in “Actually, College Is Very Much Worth It”:

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2010, the median weekly earnings for someone with some college but no degree were $712, compared to $1,038 for a college graduate. That’s almost $17,000 over the course of a year and there is an even bigger divide for those with less education. College graduates are also more likely to be in jobs with better benefits, further widening the divide. Meanwhile, in 2010, the unemployment rate was 9.2 percent for those with only some college and more than 10 percent for those with just a high school degree, but it was 5.4 percent for college graduates.

In other words, the one move that will cost you more than attending college is not attending college. Of course, it’s certainly not for everyone. But if your kid is so inclined, college is still a worthwhile investment, particularly if your family pays for it the right way.

As those 260,000 minimum-wage workers indicate, just any old degree is no longer enough. While avoiding degrees that offer a low monetary return on your investment is a good place to start, how you pay for a degree is often more critical to your family’s financial health.

In other words, it’s possible to take a major step backward even with the right degree by:

  • overpaying at a school your family can’t really afford;
  • not saving early enough and/or mismanaging your college fund;
  • getting bogged down by student loans instead of working out creative alternatives; and
  • continuing to write checks while your son or daughter dillydallies through a fifth or sixth year of college.

With all the chatter about student debt, it’s easy to think of student loans as unavoidable. They aren’t. Your family can build an effective plan and take many leaps forward. How?

Start saving early. There are a variety of tax-advantaged college savings plans available, such as 529 plans and Coverdell Educational Savings Accounts, or “education IRAs.” Since some of these plans have annual contribution limits, it’s imperative to start saving as soon as possible. That’s the only way to squeeze out every last penny of compound interest.

Get a four-year degree in four years. Only 36% of incoming freshmen graduate in four years. Taking six years to graduate is increasingly the norm. Tune out the counselor who says, “Take the minimum number of courses to qualify as a full-time student; it’s less stressful.” Forget that!

Avoid student loans. I cannot stress this enough: graduating with tens of thousands of dollars in debt creates an indentured servant. That debt can delay marriage, home ownership, children, and wealth accumulation for the student—and derail the retirement plans of the parents. Student loans cannot be discharged through bankruptcy, and many boomers are now cringing as student debt (likely from cosigning on their children’s loans) is deducted from their Social Security checks.

Explore balancing a part-time job, applying for every scholarship under the sun, and selecting a less expensive college or junior college before you even think about a student loan.

Student loan debt is the game-changer that destroys options and kills independence.

Invest smart. I know, I know, that’s easier said than done. That’s why the Money Forever team has just released The Truth About College Funds, a step-by-step guide to saving and paying for college the smart way.

It’s still true: college graduates generally will earn a lot more over their lifetimes. This free special report is designed to help families produce debt-free and employable college graduates while navigating real-world hurdles. Click here to download your complimentary copy.