Despite a slowly recovering economy and higher tuition costs, this decade has seen a nearly 10 percent increase in college enrollment. Some wonder if the payoff of a degree is worth the nearly $25,000 in debt many graduates acquire, especially when you consider the troubling statistic that one of every two recent college graduates is struggling to find employment.

The short answer is yes, when you consider figures provided by the Pew Research Center, that college graduates earn an average of $20,000 more than high school graduates per year, which over a lifetime means $1.17 million more according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

I believe, though, that the value of a college education should not be measured solely by the financial advantages it will most likely provide. Nor should it be valued simply by the reality that hiring agents seeking new employees still regard a college education as an important accomplishment to have on a resumé. To me, a college experience is valuable because it fosters the creative and critical thinking skills that companies seek in their leaders today. Learning how to present balanced and cogent positions on a particular topic, engaging in problem solving, practicing the construction of complex concepts—these are all attributes that companies need in their talent pool. Also, college provides an enriching environment that exposes, maybe for the first time, students to a diversity of perspectives and core values. A student becomes prepared, not just for the work world, but also for becoming a citizen of the world.

Also, how many of us can say we knew with certainty, at 18, what we wanted our career path to look like? I have four children, all of whom entered college with a course of study in mind. Through the variety of experiences they had during their four years, they all chose professional fields they either hadn’t known about—or imagined they would be interested in—when they entered college. That said, a traditional college education does not suit everyone. There are many fields in which a high school graduate, with appropriate training, can achieve tremendous professional success. For example, pursuing a passion for cooking can often lead to technical training that results in a very satisfying and lucrative career as a chef. The critical factor is to understand what you love doing, and follow through with commitment and rigor.

In the end, the value of an education, no matter what form it takes, is not what it prepares us to do, but who it prepares us to be. If we can take the time to learn for the sake of learning and follow our passions, then education becomes a lifelong experience, not merely a period in time when we are young.