The recession and tough job market have made it difficult for college grads to find jobs over the last few years, making many question the value of the hefty investment.

Despite the rising tuition costs at many universities, a degree ultimately brings higher pay. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median bachelor’s degree holder made $1,053 a week last year versus $638 for a high school grad without a degree. Last year's unemployment rate for college grads stood at 4.9% versus 9.4% for those sans college.( http://www.bls.gov/)

What’s more, the Georgetown University Center for Education and Workforce reports that workers with at least a bachelor’s degree have a 97% wage advantage over those with just a high school diploma.  

Despite all this, graduates on the job hunt and saddled with student loan debt want to know they’re getting a return on their investment, which is equally as important to potential employers, says Tamryn Hennessy, national director of Career Services at Rasmussen College

“They look at that as you were able to retain and be successful there, so it is worth my time and money to invest in you as an employee--retention is such a key thing for employers,” she says.  “There are a lot of different ways that you can show why your education will make you a better employee and therefore why it’s a worthwhile investment in your lifetime earnings.”

Here are four steps the experts say students can take to maximize their return on investment in a college education.

Find the Right School  

Being successful during college to complete a degree and find work hinges on finding the right school. Students have to be personally invested in their education in order to see any kind of return, says Hennessy.

“If you cannot complete at that institution, it does not matter what that dollar sign was because you are going to come away with debt and nothing to show for it,” she says.

Students should pick their classes carefully to avoid taking unnecessary, unqualified or duplicate classes that won’t apply to their degree, warns Todd Bloom, chief academic officer for Hobsons.  

“Make sure your goal is clear and the path (i.e. coursework toward degree) as efficient (i.e. low cost) as possible,” he says. “Consider preferences and lifestyle impact associated with campus size, location, career placement, activities, and other factors that factor into making a particular college a good fit.”

Know Your Total Costs

College is expensive, but just how much will it cost over four years? Students must thoroughly understand the financial implications of attending college and the loan debt that they will repay after graduation, says Rita Toliver Roberts, vice president of Academic Advancement at Peirce College

“A risky investment would be for a student with little aid to attend an institution with high costs,” she says. “Students should research tuition costs and work with financial aid representatives to determine if their aid will cover them until they reach degree completion.”

Students accepted to more than one school should take a close look at the financial aid package, as all packages are not created equal, says Chris Szpryngel, Academic Program Manager for Management at Post University.

“Although it may look as though the schools are comparably priced, grants and scholarships do not need to be repaid, and loans do.”

Think Long-Term When Choosing a Major

Some majors may have better employment and earnings prospects (such as science, technology, engineering and math fields) and students should evaluate what industry and sectors are set to grow and offer job opportunities upon graduation. With that said, students also need to think about what potential majors and jobs will feed their passion and offer them a satisfying career, says Szpryngel.

“Regardless of the field, today’s employees have to be lifelong learners willing to constantly build their skills,” he says.

It’s wise to do background research on a particular industry, but future earning potential is just one part of determining return on investment, says Bloom.

“Individual interests and talents should play a big part when students choose a major, because people are more likely to be successful at work they enjoy and that they feel uses and develops their skills,” he says. “Earnings potential is a guideline, and not a guarantee, as most of these statistics are averages across many degrees at a given institution.”

Take Advantage of Campus Resources

Students should make the most of their opportunities while in school through networking, internships, and student-run organizations to build “hard” and “soft” skills employers want, says Szpryngel.

“Many clubs support local community initiatives and volunteering will expose students to the importance of helping under-represented populations as well as working closely with community leaders,” he says. “These hands on projects will build quantifiable skills which students can transition to the workplace.”

Getting acquainted with career services early on can also make a big difference for the end goal of a college investment—landing a job post-graduation.

“They usually have very direct links to employer communities so they can give you that important feedback,” says Hennessy. “We can advise students on what they need to do to make sure that they will fit what an employer is looking for.”