The higher education system has fallen under scrutiny in recent years as potential students begin to ask tough questions about the real value of a college degree. Specifically: is it worth the cost? With new graduates struggling to find and keep jobs, and student debt reaching staggering levels, young people on the threshold of adulthood are starting to take the search for alternatives very seriously.But even as questions are raised about the monetary, intellectual, and spiritual value of higher education, a four-year bachelor’s degree still seems to function as a gateway into most professional careers, which means it still serves as a ticket to a middle-class lifestyle. So regardless of the sticker price, it’s a good idea to investigate both the benefits and the risks of going into debt for that all-important piece of paper. Before you accept a student loan, find answers to these five questions.1. What is the interest rate, and can you defer payments and freeze the interest if you decide to enter graduate school or face financial hardship? Interest rates on federal student loans are low and usually manageable, but private loans can come with astronomical interest and fees. And student loans can’t be dissolved in the event of bankruptcy. Unlike property or purchased goods, you can’t simply hand an education back in order to escape from your obligations. Remember: the true cost of your degree will include the interest rate multiplied by the number of years you’ll be making payments.2. Have you explored alternatives like grants, scholarships, and awards? You may be more eligible for these options than you think.3. Is the institution you have in mind really worth the financial cost? Don’t be taken in by TV commercials and glossy brochures. Before you sign up for any academic program, make sure your institution is accredited. Since federal loans are available to everyone, illegitimate, unaccredited “universities” are cropping up all over the country in order to sweep this loan money into their own pockets. Unfortunately, this can leave their student “customers” burdened with years of payments and no real degree or credentials to show for it.4. Is your major likely to pay off for you financially? If you’re choosing a major or course of study simply because you’re curious and driven by a desire to know more and learn more, that’s fine. Formal learning is essential to personal growth, and the more you know, the more complex and whole you’ll become as a human being. But while some degrees are worthy intellectual investments, not all courses of study can be considered financial investments. Know the difference. Research the realities of your chosen job market before you move forward.5. Are you choosing a major or course of study for your own reasons…or are you acting on a desire to impress someone else? This is a common career mistake made by young people in almost every generation. Before you spend the next ten years of your life paying for a degree, make sure you’re doing this for you. If you’re trying to impress your parents, their friends, your friends, your guidance counselor, or a neighbor down the street, remember: nobody actually cares what you do for a living except you. Ten years from now, while you struggle to pay off your efforts to impress casual strangers, these people won’t be thinking about you—or the direction of your career—at all. Keep a strong grip on the steering wheel of your own life.