WASHINGTON — High unemployment has left many Americans questioning whether the soaring cost of college makes it a good bargain for today’s young adults.

But there’s strong evidence that a four-year degree pays off – and in some ways that may be even more so for the current generation.

New data from Pew Research indicate that for people age 25 to 32 – part of the so-called millennial generation – the gap in earnings between college graduates and those with a high school diploma or less has never been greater in the modern era.

Pew researchers, in a report released Tuesday, found that millennials who have college degrees made about $17,500 more in 2012, on average, than their peers with only a high school diploma. In inflation-adjusted dollars, that compares with a gap of almost $10,000 for the early baby boom generation when they were the same age that millennials are today. For the so-called Generation Xers, who were born between 1965 and 1980, the pay disparity between college and high school graduates at the time they were young adults was $15,780 in adjusted dollars, according to Pew’s analysis of federal data.

In percentage terms, millennial workers with only a high school education earned 61.5 percent of the annual income of similarly aged adults with a bachelor’s degree. By comparison, for early boomers a high school graduate’s pay was 77 percent that of a college graduate, and for Generation Xers it was 64 percent.

It’s not surprising that the pay gap based on education has widened as the economy has become more service-oriented and specialized, and as globalization and an erosion of unions have further held down wages, analysts say.

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