By Kathleen Owens

Now, more than ever before, a college degree is a necessity for those entering the job market. Recent data from the U.S. Department of Labor show the glaring disparity between those who obtain a degree vs. those who do not:

The unemployment rate for college graduates is 3.9 percent, compared with 7.5 percent for the workforce as a whole.

The number of college-educated workers with jobs has risen by 9.1 percent since the beginning of the recession. For workers with a high school diploma, employment is down 9 percent.

In 2012, the typical full-time worker with a bachelor's degree earned 79 percent more than a similar full-time worker with no more than a high school diploma, according to the New York Times.

Still, many families struggle with a key question: How can we afford to pay for that degree?

Families should consider the financial impact in a broader context driven by hard data and not scary headlines about "college debt." Look at the "net" cost for college and fully understand the funding options available, including federal and state grants, as well as financial aid provided by colleges and universities.

At Gwynedd-Mercy College, 35.53 percent of our student body receives Pell Grants, a federal program for low-income families. We also provided $15.8 million in direct student aid last year. In fact, about 78 percent of students enrolled in private colleges in the commonwealth receive grant aid.

But we can and should do more, and that message is starting to resonate in Harrisburg. Lawmakers are backing legislation to help middle-income families afford the Pennsylvania college or university of their choice.

The Middle Income Student Debt Reduction Act would provide $36 million in new state funds for students whose family income ranges from $80,000 to $110,000. These state grants would be funded through the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, which provides college grants for low- and moderate-income students.

Gwynedd-Mercy College, along with dozens of colleges and universities across the state, supports this proposal, which, it is important to note, does not reduce the amount of aid currently provided to the neediest of families. Such an effort would be counterproductive to our mission.

But other families need assistance too.

A recent Robert Wood Johnson Foundation study showed that students with family incomes between $60,000 and $100,000 assumed the largest levels of student debt. Those with family incomes between $100,000 and $150,000 were right behind them.

It makes sense that families with incomes above $150,000 assumed the least debt. These families need to borrow less. But what is surprising is that lower-income families - those with incomes below $60,000 - had assumed less debt than middle-income families. That's not bad news. It demonstrates that lower-income families can obtain access to higher education without necessarily incurring unmanageable levels of debt. We have an obligation to do as much as possible to make college affordable for this group.

However, as middle-income family budgets strain under multiple financial demands, shouldn't the state provide some grant aid to help them shoulder college costs without being overloaded with debt?

Pennsylvanians have a wide range of choices when picking a college, and they have a wide range of potential funding sources to help make that degree easier to obtain. For middle-income families, the student debt reduction act could be yet one more source.

Kathleen Owens is president of Gwynedd-Mercy College. E-mail her at owens.k@gmc.edu.