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​Congrats, class of 2016: You're the most indebted yet

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Business hiring slowed in April, and other MoneyWatch headlines 01:04

Graduating from college should be a time of celebration, but some seniors may be feeling slightly wary about joining the workforce given what's ahead of them: years of paying off their student loans.

Members of the class of 2016 who borrowed to finance their degrees will leave college with a record level of debt: $37,173 per student on average, according to calculations from student loan expert Mark Kantrowitz. That represents a 6 percent increase from last year, when students left school with an average of $35,051. The calculation is a projection based on federal student-loan data and other factors.

There's some good news, however: Starting salaries are on the rise again. The figure for new grads with undergraduate degrees was $43,000 last year, or 7.5 percent higher than in 2014, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. That may provide some reassurance to students and their parents about whether taking on so much debt will pay off.

Acting education secretary on student debt problem 01:17

"So long as your total student loan debt at graduation is less than your annual starting salary, you'll be able to repay your student loans in 10 years or less," Kantrowitz said. "But some students vary from these averages, enrolling in more expensive colleges and pursuing careers that are less financially rewarding. But this is more a matter of choice than necessity. The key is to keep your debt in sync with your income."

In other words, taking on debt of $100,000 to pursue a career that only pays $25,000 annually may not be a wise financial choice.

And while the economy has improved since the Great Recession ended, it's still not back to precrisis levels. The class of 2016 will enter a job market that continues to suffer from higher levels of unemployment for young Americans and relatively stagnant wage trends, according to a study from left-leaning Economic Policy Institute last month. The percentage of recent grads who are "idled" -- meaning neither employed nor in school -- is about 10 percent now, up from 8.4 percent in 2007.

Nevertheless, it's clear that a college degree puts young Americans on the path toward greater financial stability than holding just a high school diploma. Recent college grads have an unemployment rate of 5.6 percent, compared with 17.9 percent for high-school grads. And lifetime earnings are typically higher for college grads than for their counterparts who lack a degree.

"A college education is the gateway to higher-paying jobs," Kantrowitz noted. "While some people are successful without a college degree, getting a college degree -- including certificates and associate's degrees, not just bachelor's degrees and more advanced degrees -- is a more reliable path to the middle class."

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