There's a lot to consider when deciding on a college, from the school's academic stature to the cafeteria food. And now, more than ever, parents and students are putting greater weight on finding a school they feel is worth the steep tuition.
Given the high cost of college and debt burden for many after graduation, schools that pay back on that investment with hefty student aid, a strong alumni network and promising post-grad career placement are worth their weight in gold.
"It is especially important for parents and students to plan realistically and choose wisely, especially if student loans are paying for the majority of these costs," said Mike Salmon, a financial advisor at Moisand Fitzgerald Tamayo in Orlando, Florida. "Students need to understand what they are signing up for and how difficult it might be to support the loan payment if the degree doesn't lead to an above-average-paying career."
To that end, the Princeton Review compiled a list of the top colleges with the greatest return on investment. To calculate each school's ROI, the Princeton Review factored in academics, cost, financial aid and graduation rates among other considerations as well as PayScale.com data on starting and mid-career salaries of alumni.
So when choosing — and financing — a college education, consider the schools with the greatest return. Here are the top five.
— Posted by CNBC's Jessica Dickler
Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts
Average starting salary: $70,300
MIT's sticker price may deter some, but this school is particularly generous with financial aid packages and scholarships to offset the cost. Over a quarter of the students enrolled come from families with household incomes under $75,000 and many freshmen are first-generation college students.
With a strong emphasis on math, science and engineering and a stellar reputation, it's no surprise the median starting salary for MIT grads is over $70,000.
Location: Claremont, California
Average starting salary: $75,600
As part of the Claremont consortium, Harvey Mudd is a small school with a special focus on engineering. Although the tuition is high compared to other schools, 82 percent of the students receive financial aid and nearly half qualify for merit-based awards.
The college is also highly committed to helping its students find jobs after graduation and with 86 percent of the students taking STEM subjects, the typical grad earns over $75,000 right out of school. These are "really employable students and in really high demand," said David Soto, co-author of the Princeton Review book, "Colleges That Pay You Back."
Location: New York, New York
Average starting salary: $61,100
While it's no longer free to attend Cooper Union, the small New York City school remains committed to a generous scholarship policy. Every student receives a half-tuition scholarship each year worth $20,400 with aid still available to cover the remaining costs.
Graduates go on to pursue a wide range of interests and professions and report earning $61,100 just out of the gate — with very little in the way of student debt.
Location: Princeton, New Jersey
Average starting salary: $60,000
Princeton Tigers fare remarkably well after graduation for a number of reasons. For one, a strong alumni network provides a boost for those on the job hunt and second, most Princeton students graduate with very little student debt to worry about since this Ivy League school has eliminated all loans for students who qualify for aid.
Awards come in the form of grants that do not need to be repaid. "Once you get in, they will do their best to ensure you don't have to take out loans," Soto said. The average debt burden is only $6,600 for all four years — "sort of a song considering what students at other schools are bearing," Soto said.
Location: Pasadena, California
Average starting salary: $74,800
Caltech is relatively affordable and very well regarded for a smaller school set in the suburbs of Los Angeles. The school makes an effort to curtail student debt by awarding aid packages with little work-study or loans. The average debt load for students is just over $15,000 for all four years.
A whopping 93 percent of graduates are STEM majors who report earning nearly $75,000 at their first job out of school. "Considering the salaries that they are making after graduation, it puts Caltech at the top of our list," Soto said.