The cost of college and the level of student debt are topics of great concern for most families these days. But much that is found in the media relies on anecdotes and outliers who can present a misleading picture of the economics of higher education.

It is important to realize college remains within reach for families of all income levels.

Start with cost and financial aid. Lots of attention is paid to the published tuition price at colleges. However, the important price is not the published price but the net tuition, the price a student actually pays after taking into account grants and scholarships provided by the institutions and by state and federal programs like the Pell Grant and Minnesota State Grant.

Consider the 17 Minnesota private nonprofit colleges that I work for, a group that includes the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth. At our colleges, 94 percent of first-time full-time students receive scholarships and grants they do not have to pay back. Last year, our colleges provided more than $500 million in grant aid to students. These grants and scholarships meet the financial needs of low- and middle-income families and reward students for academic merit while substantially lowering the actual price of going to college. As a result, the average net tuition (excluding room and board) at our private colleges in Minnesota is under $15,000. That’s less than half the average published tuition.

How can students and families know the price they will actually pay? They can explore net price calculators (which are on every college’s website), visit college campuses and talk with financial-aid counselors. They will learn that the cost of college can be affordable for families at all income levels. In fact, 25 percent of students at Minnesota’s private colleges come from families with incomes below $40,000; another 25 percent of students’ families earn between $40,000 and $80,000.

Next, consider debt. The media often reports on students with six-figure student loan debt. Are these anecdotes typical? Not at all. About 28 percent of students who graduate from Minnesota’s four-year colleges graduate without any debt at all. None. Of those who incur debt, the median student debt is $27,300, and median debt levels are similar for Minnesota’s private nonprofit and public university graduates. Nationally, less than 12 percent of all students graduate with debt of more than $50,000; most are graduate and professional-school students (doctors, lawyers, MBAs and Ph.D.s) or students who attended for-profit colleges.

Given that the median annual full-time salary of a new college graduate is over $40,000, a majority of students do not incur debt that is unaffordable, given the income they will be earning, according to the guidelines of financial experts.

What can students do to keep college affordable? Among the most important things: graduate on time. Student debt skyrockets for students who take five or six years to graduate. The odds of graduating on time are high at our nonprofit colleges; our four-year graduation rate is the best in the state - and in the Midwest. That’s an important part of what makes our colleges affordable.

College is a significant investment. Cost and debt are important considerations for students. However, there is one thing about the economics of college that is even more important than cost or debt: value. As Warren Buffett has said: “Price is what you pay; value is what you get.” Numerous studies have shown that graduates with a bachelor’s degree on average earn $500,000 to $1 million over a lifetime more than those with only a high school degree. And your chances of being unemployed are far smaller with a college degree than without one.

In today’s competitive economy, what’s more expensive than a college education? Not having one.

Paul Cerkvenik is an Iron Range native and president of the Minnesota Private College Council (mnprivatecolleges.org), an association of 17 private, nonprofit colleges in Minnesota.