If you've recently decided to go back to school to finish working on a degree, or are attempting one for the first time, don't let critics dissuade you from continuing that path.

That's something to remember as CSU Bakersfield and Kern County's three community colleges, among most others across the country, prepare to resume classes this month.

Despite what some say about the value of a college degree versus the cost of obtaining it, new research by the job-matching service TheLadders suggests that those with a four-year degree still earn an average of $215,000 more than high school graduates over 20 years. That number is even higher for those with a masters or doctorate degree: They'll make $440,000 more than nongrads over the same period.

But graduates must be patient and willing to wait for their high-paying jobs. The study's results are viewed in the long term because new graduates are likely to enter the workforce on an equal financial footing with nongraduates unless they have plenty of related work experience. In either case, graduates will see exponential financial growth over time.

But like everything else in life, a degree is what you make of it. Craig Brandon, author of "The Five-Year Party: How Colleges Have Given Up On Educating Your Child and What You Can Do About It," writes: "The institutions and administrators you trust to foster and guide your children's formation are more interested in their pocketbooks than their intellects." Many of them, anyway. It takes a little research to see where a given university's priorities lie. Done right, though, college still makes a huge difference in terms of earning -- and overall fulfillment.

To get the most out of your college years, and enhance the value of your degree, go to class on time every time, network with instructors and students, take an internship in your field of study and study abroad if the opportunity presents itself. These small efforts could potentially lead to big gains down the road.