It's graduation season again, with commencement exercises scheduled for many schools across our area and beyond over the next week or two. First and foremost, we add our congratulations to those already heard by the graduates of 2014. Whether it is a middle school, high school or college diploma awaiting a graduating student, the achievement represents an important milestone, and one to be proud of.

But hopefully it will also not be the last one for the high school and college graduates in particular. Education and learning have always been to a degree lifelong pursuits, and that is more true today than ever before.

While the escalating costs of college and the striking amounts of loan debt many college students are graduating with have garnered much deserved attention, the fact remains that for a high school graduate not to go on to college and graduate represents a much larger cost, in terms of income foregone. While colleges do need to take much harder looks at their tuition costs and whether or not constructing new buildings that don't directly serve the academic mission are really necessary, a high school graduate should think twice before opting out of the educational mainstream because of a fear of incurring an unsustainable level of loan debt.

Virtually every study of the subject shows the persistence of a long term trend - the more education you can get, the higher your likely income and earning potential will be, not just at the start of a working career, but all the way forward.

Federal Labor Department data reveals that Americans with four-year college degrees made 98 percent more an hour on average in 2013 than people without a degree. That represents an increase not only from five years ago, but going back at least to the early 1980s. Over the roughly 45 years of a typical person's working career, that translates into much more than offsetting the cost of those student loans, onerous as they may be. Fixing the student loan debt quagmire should be an urgent priority for lawmakers, but we're under no illusion any thing meaningful, even in terms of a discussion, is likely to start before next year, if then.

Salary and income of course are not the only reasons to attend college, and may not even be the most important. That is where broadening of the mind comes in. The jobs of the future will require adaptability and flexibility, even more so than they do already, and learning to think and problem solve are what students should be learning at the college and university level.

There will always be exceptions to the rule. We all know Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of college and not only earned large fortunes, but led or are leading presumably fascinating lives as well. There are no shortage of high school graduates who stopped there and who can say the same thing. The fact remains that the more educational credentials a person acquires, the better the odds are for success - as each person defines that.

That is relevant because one of the major debates and divides in recent years has been the divergence of wealth and who is acquiring it. It's an article of faith at this point that the top 1 percent of the U. S. population by wealth is collecting an ever-larger share of the economic pie. That's not a desirable trend, because left unchecked, the inevitable result will be a rise in social tensions and a credibility problem for the American Dream. Though often mocked, the idea and the faith in the eventual reality of the Dream is crucial.

When people stop striving to get ahead through hard work and determination, believing the deck is stacked against them from the start, the driving wheel of prosperity and innovation that has elevated this nation since its start will be damaged. The implications of that are disturbing and dire.

The soundest way to avoid that scenario is by arming as many people as possible with advanced degrees, so they can be qualified for higher earning jobs. Mere possession of such degrees is not a guarantee of success - you are simply giving yourself the best chance to walk through the door and then be successful once inside.

Equality of opportunity is what the nation promises, although that ideal is from time to time imperfectly lived up to. But in the long run, that is the central premise of what we as a nation should and must stand for. Not equality of result - equality of opportunity. Ironically, the best way of achieving that may not lie on the "back end" of the educational cycle on a college campus, but rather on the front end - the very front end - pre-Kindergarten.

Debate continues over whether state and federal money is wisely spent to offer greatly expanded pre-K programs, but to us, there is no debate at all. Affluent families and those who want to be have long had the awareness and, some way or another, the ability to send their 3 and 4 year-old offspring to day care, pre-K and summer camp programs and the burst of learning and mental development that starts at that point not only manifests itself earlier but will often create a gap in academic achievement right on through. The nation can't afford to allow such a gap to continue, for moral as well as sound economic reasons. This is one area where Vermonters can be proud of the state for taking a leadership role in, with the Legislature passing an act last month that makes at least 10 hours per week of high-quality education available to every 3- and 4-year-old child in the state. That is a step in the right direction that will pay huge dividends going forward. More can and eventually should be done.

But for now we'll wish our newly minted graduates well, and remind them that it's called "commencement" for a reason. It is a beginning, not an end. Many doors stand before you, waiting to be opened. Good luck on your journey.