How we rank the top 50 US colleges that pay off the most

@cric_ab via Twenty20

College costs can be difficult to estimate. Even for college applicants with the foresight to research things like debt balances at graduation and average alumni salaries, outcomes can be difficult to predict.

We set out to determine which colleges provide the best return on students' time and money. The result is our first list of the U.S. Colleges That Pay Off the Most, a ranking that spotlights the 50 schools that provide students the highest average salaries for their tuition dollars.

Here's how we did it.

We started with the true net cost of each college, which measures how much students pay (including tuition, fees, books, supplies and other expenses) after subtracting scholarships and grants, for students from families making between $48,001 - $75,000, an income range established by the Department of Education. We chose to consider the net cost for this income bracket in order to represent the true cost of college for average Americans and to highlight schools that provide them generous support.

OTU: Ranking Map

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To determine average net cost for this demographic, CNBC Make It used data from Tuition Tracker, a tool produced by The Hechinger Report, a non-profit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. The Tuition Tracker compiles data provided by the U.S. Department of Education from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) from 2008 to 2017.

We considered the top 200 colleges and universities included in PayScale's College Salary Report, which compiles data from an ongoing, online compensation survey of 3.2 million college graduates from 1,679 bachelor's-degree granting schools in the U.S., and 1,393 associate degree-granting schools.

PayScale calculates the median salary for alumni with less than five years of experience and median salary for alumni with over 10 years of experience. We used the average of these two figures to generate an average salary for graduates from each school. Doing so gives greater weight to the earnings of younger workers in the years when graduates are most immediately impacted by college costs and student debt. We divided the net cost by this salary average and ranked schools accordingly.

Only bachelor's degree-granting schools were considered. We excluded military schools from the list, including tuition-free institutions like West Point and The Naval Academy, because the cost of post-college military service introduces an additional factor that's challenging to measure against other schools.

And while the cost of attending college and what students can expect to earn in the future is essential information to have when making a decision about a school, students shouldn't make their college decisions based solely on potential earnings — or even our ranking.

"Information about earnings as it's tied to a college education is one piece of data," Lydia Frank, vice president of content strategy at PayScale, tells CNBC Make It. "It's an important piece, because if you are funding your education through loans, it makes a ton of sense to understand your capacity for paying that off after graduation."

However, Frank says, as with all financial investments, there are many things to consider. Pay is "just one piece of information. There's a host of other factors that can help you best understand whether a college is a fit for you."

You can check out the full list of the U.S. colleges that pay off the most here.

Special thanks to the The Hechinger Report and PayScale for their contributions to this list. Thanks also to Akila Weerapana, associate professor of economics at Wellesley College; Christopher Hayes, quantitative analyst at CNBC; Jon Rork, professor of economics at Reed College; Thomas Bailey, economics professor and president of the Teachers College at Columbia University; and Hassan Enayati, economist and research associate at the Institute for Compensation Studies at Cornell University, for their insights.

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