New data released on the median starting salaries of graduates of public and private colleges and universities in Virginia contained a few surprises. For example, not all grads with degrees from the highly competitive University of Virginia or College of William & Mary -- known as "public Ivies" and ranked second and sixth on U.S. News & World Reports' 2013 rankings of Best Public Schools -- made the most money in their respective fields. In fact, graduates of George Mason University in Fairfax were competitive with U.Va., William & Mary and much pricier private schools.

Academics warn that students and parents would be wrong to choose a particular college based all or mostly on a comparison of starting wages of four-year graduates from various institutions. And they are right. The ultimate worth of a college degree cannot be measured so clumsily.

However, for years college tuition nationwide has soared well beyond the rate of inflation. According to the College Board, last year alone it jumped 8.3 percent to an average of $8,244 per year to attend a public institution, and between 4 and 5 percent at private colleges, raising their average tuition rate to $28,500 per year. The surge in tuition has made college unaffordable for many and forced hundreds of thousands of students into debt. College grads now start their adult lives with an average of $22,000 in student loans, with total indebtedness of nearly $1 trillion -- more than Americans owe on their credit cards.

The problem is compounded by a horrible labor market, leaving many young borrowers who can't find jobs unable to pay off their debt. So young people heading for postsecondary education in this sputtering economy need to be much more financially savvy and value-oriented than their older siblings who graduated into booming job markets.

A comparison of average starting salaries with tuition costs should be just one of many considerations for students deciding where to apply to a particular school or degree program, but it should still be a consideration.

Several other states are considering copying the Virginia State Council of Higher Education's groundbreaking database, mandated by the state legislature, and creating median starting salary databases of their own to allow their students to do the same kind of cost-benefit analyses. The more information students have about the real working world they will soon enter, the better chance they have of making the best choice.