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Value of college? For millennials, it's $17,500 a year

The cost of going to college may never have seemed more daunting—but the payout may never have been more rewarding.

An older millennial with a college degree is earning a median full-time salary of $45,500 a year—$17,500 more than the median salary of $28,000 for full-time workers with just a high school diploma, a new Pew Research Center report finds.

That's the largest pay disparity between young workers in at least four generations, the report released Tuesday finds.

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The Pew data reinforced that as well. The center's survey of about 500 currently employed 25- to 32-year-olds found that 53 percent of those with a college degree were very satisfied with their jobs, compared with 37 percent of those without a college degree.

It's also further evidence that people with less education are at higher risk of getting left behind in the economic recovery.

"It's too bad that anybody's getting left behind, but the patterns are such that, at this point, it's gone definitely in the direction of favoring the college graduates," said Christopher Avery, a professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School who wasn't involved in the Pew study.

A higher salary is not the only way in which the Pew report found that a college degree is paying off for older millennials, defined as ages 25 to 32.

Pew's analysis of government data found that the unemployment rate for the age group with just a high school diploma was 12.2 percent last spring, compared with just 3.8 percent for those with at least a college degree.

That college degree also appears to be keeping more people out of poverty. Nearly 22 percent of people in that age range with just a high school diploma were living in poverty, versus nearly 6 percent of those with a bachelor's degree.

(Read more: Millennials hit 30: It's the economy, not us)

The study comes amid growing concerns over the nation's burgeoning student loan debt, which has topped $1 trillion according to government estimates. The high debt burden has caused many people to question whether it's still worth going to college.

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The Pew researchers found that the vast majority of millennials with at least a college degree thought that their degrees had already paid off, even if they had borrowed money to go to school.

Avery said his research has shown that taking on some student loan debt is still generally worth the reward of education, as long as the student borrows a reasonable amount of money and earns a degree. But it can backfire if the student drops out and ends up with high debt but little education to show for it. That's especially common among people who go to for-profit universities, he said.

Other research has shown that what you study in college, and what you plan to do after college, also makes a big difference.

A Census report on lifetime earnings, which used data through 2011, found that a person with a college degree can expect to earn about $2.4 million over a 40-year career. That's more than $1 million more than a person with just a high school diploma can expect to earn in that period, according to the analysis of median full-time salaries.

But, the Census feport found, the pay boost was generally much stronger for people in fields such as engineering or computing than for college graduates in the education or service professions.

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Still, Avery noted that there are other benefits to a college degree. He said other research has shown that college graduates are happier in their jobs than those without a college degree, even if their earnings aren't that different. He said that's evidence that there are other career benefits to going to college, such as the ability to land a more pleasant job in a field you enjoy.

The Pew data reinforced that as well. The center's survey of about 500 currently employed 25- to 32-year-olds found that 53 percent of those with a college degree were very satisfied with their jobs, compared with 37 percent of those without a college degree.

—By CNBC's Allison Linn. Follow her on Twitter @allisondlinn and Google or send her an email.

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