Colleges offering the biggest bang for your buck

Graduating Stanford University students are shown before the start of the 123rd Stanford commencement ceremony, June 15, 2014, in Stanford, Calif.
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Friday is decision day, when many high school seniors choose which college to attend. In the process, they are making one of the biggest investment decisions of their lives. New rankings from the Brookings Institution aim to demystify the value of a college education by examining how much a particular school can add to your earnings potential.

Others have also taken a crack at measuring the return on investing in a college education. Money magazine ranks what it called "schools that deliver great value." And PayScale uses 20-year salary data to determine the colleges and universities that offer the biggest bump above what a student could earn with a high school degree (factoring in the cost of college).

Read MoreWhich colleges have the best return on investment?

Brookings aims to take that measurement a step further by calculating what a student can expect in mid-career earnings from an education at a particular college, given the student's characteristics and the type of college or university. It then looks at actual midcareer earnings, and counts the difference as the value the college adds relative to similar schools. Some of the difference comes from measurable factors, such as financial aid availability and a school's emphasis on STEM careers. Other intangibles, like teaching quality, play a role as well, Brookings said.

The list includes several marquee names but also some surprises. Here are the top 10 four-year institutions on Brookings' list.

—By CNBC's Kelley Holland
Posted 1 May 2015

California Institute of Technology

California Institute of Technology campus in Pasadena, California.
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Caltech, a private research university in Pasadena, California, is heavily focused on science and engineering. At midcareer, its graduates earn 49.2 percent more than the Brookings model projects for similar schools, thanks in part to a high-value curriculum, Caltech's focus on STEM careers, its high eight-year graduation rate, and highly paid instructors, a marker of institutional quality.

Colgate University

Colgate University, with Taylor Lake in the foreground, is shown in Hamilton, N.Y.
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Based in Hamilton, New York, Colgate is further from big job markets than No. 1 Cal Tech. Even so, its graduates' midcareer earnings are 46.2 percent higher than Brookings' model projects. The value of alumni skills in the marketplace lift Colgate, as do its high retention and graduation rates, financial aid awards and compensation for instructors, a marker of institutional quality.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Massachusetts Institute of Technology
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Just across the Charles River from Boston and cheek by jowl with Harvard, MIT is in an attractive job market for its STEM-oriented students, and its graduates' midcareer earnings run 44.6 percent higher than Brookings' model projects for similar schools. Instructors are highly paid, and financial aid is generous. MIT's high curriculum value, alumni skills value and focus on STEM careers also factor in.

Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology

Hatfield Hall and the Flame of the Millennium statue are shown at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind.
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Rose-Hulman, based in Terre Haute, Indiana, is less well-known than many others at the top of Brookings' list, but at midcareer, its graduates are earning 43.8 percent more than Brookings predicts for similar schools. Rose-Hulman's STEM focus, along with its curriculum value and alumni skills, are a big reason why. So is generous financial aid.

Carleton College

The campus of Carleton College is shown in this aerial view.
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It may be far from the nearest major tech hub, but Carleton, based in Northfield, Minnesota, nonetheless turns out graduates whose midcareer earnings are 43.4 percent higher than Brookings' model predicts. The school has high student retention and eight-year graduation rates, and its financial aid is generous. Well-paid instructors point to high institutional quality, and a substantial share of graduates prepared for STEM careers also help.

Washington and Lee University

Washington and Lee
Doug Plummer | Washington and Lee University

Located in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley in Lexington, Virginia, Washington and Lee turns out graduates who earn 42.5 percent more at midcareer than Brookings' model predicts for similar schools. Generous financial aid and high-paid instructors, a mark of institutional quality, contribute, as do alumni skills that command high value and high retention and eight-year graduation rates.

SUNY Maritime College

SUNY Maritime College
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Located in Throggs Neck, New York, SUNY Maritime graduates earn 42.4 percent more at midcareer than Brookings' model predicts for similar colleges. Instructors are not well paid and financial aid is modest, but SUNY Maritime boasts high curriculum value and high market value for alumni skills.

Clarkson University

Students walk past Clarkson University’s Reh Center for Entrepreneurship in Potsdam, N.Y.
Courtesy Clarkson University

Based in Potsdam, New York, Clarkson is near the northern tip of New York State, but its graduates' midcareer earnings are well north of those of students from comparable schools—specifically, 42.2 percent higher than Brookings' model predicts for institutions with similar characteristics. A large number of STEM-focused graduates combined with high curriculum value, high alumni skill value and generous financial aid all contribute.

Manhattan College

Students exit the O’Malley Library on the campus of Manhattan University in the Bronx borough of New York.
Peter Hanges | Wikimedia Commons

The name is arguably misleading: Manhattan College is actually located in the Bronx-Riverdale, to be precise. But its graduates wind up with salaries that are 42.1 percent above Brookings' model predictions, thanks in part to high curriculum value and high-value alumni skills, many students' focus on STEM fields, generous financial aid, and well-paid instructors (a marker of institutional quality).

Stanford University

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Not only does Stanford have a reputation for having one of the most beautiful campuses, its Palo Alto location also boasts idyllic weather. On top of that, at midcareer, Stanford's graduates earn 41 percent more, on average, than Brookings' model predicts for similar schools. Stanford offers generous financial aid and highly paid instructors, a marker of institutional quality, and students' focus on STEM careers and highly valued alumni skills also factor in.