The 12 US colleges that pay off the most for sports fans

Virginia Cavaliers fans cheer during the 2019 NCAA Photos via Getty Images men's Final Four National Championship game at U.S. Bank Stadium on April 08, 2019 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Brett Wilhelm/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

No country takes college sports quite as seriously as the United States. Today, schools across the country spend millions funding college sports teams from football to fencing. As a result, sports have become synonymous with the college experience, and many students choose colleges based on the teams they love.

"People tend to get fixated on colleges and universities that they may have heard about, that they've seen on Saturday Football or during March Madness," Jon Marcus, higher education editor at education-focused nonprofit news organization The Hechinger Report, tells CNBC Make It. "Those kinds of influences hugely drive applications to colleges and universities."

But as the cost of college remains high, choosing a school solely based on its sports program isn't smart (particularly if you'll be cheering from the stands). When CNBC Make It created a list of the U.S. colleges that pay off the most we found that many of the top-ranking programs had strong athletics programs and also paid off for students.

To develop our list of the top colleges that pay off, we identified the true net cost of each college for the typical American student — including tuition, fees, books, supplies and other expenses — after subtracting scholarships and grants. Using data from Tuition Tracker, we looked at the net cost for students from families making between $48,001 and $75,000.

Then, using data from PayScale's College Salary Report, we divided net cost by graduates' expected annual earnings. (You can read our full methodology here.)

To spotlight the schools providing the best value for students who want to study at a college with a successful sports program, we took a look at data from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) to see which schools on our list won Division I championships during the 2018-2019 school year. Eight schools on our list managed to keep costs low for students, graduate high-earning alumni and win Division I championships last school year.

We also included schools that are in one of the super-competitive athletic conferences known as the Power Five: the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), the Big 10, the Big 12, the Pacific-12 (Pac-12) and the Southeastern Conference (SEC).

Stanford University, which is No. 1 on our list of the top U.S. colleges that pay off, claimed the most Division I NCAA championships last year of any school on our list, with six wins.

Of course, when many students think of college sports they think of football. While reigning football champions, Clemson, did not make our list, basketball fans should be heartened to know that the University of Virginia is home to the best men's basketball team in the U.S. and also ranks highly on our list for keeping costs low for middle-income students and producing high-earning graduates.

Here are 12 U.S. colleges that pay off for sports fans, in alphabetical order:

Columbia University

Columbia University
Getty Images

Columbia University is a private Ivy League university in New York City. Founded in 1754, Columbia is the fifth-oldest college in the United States. Columbia students can choose from 80 areas of study but must take six required classes, such as Contemporary Civilization and Frontiers of Science, and must fulfill several requirements including taking a foreign language.

Athletic conference: Ivy League
Division I NCAA championships (2018 - 2019): fencing
CNBC Make It ranking: 7, private schools

Average net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $6,592
Median salary for alumni with 0-5 years of experience: $69,200
Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $127,500
Salary average, early and mid career: $98,350

Duke University

Duke University
Lance King | Getty Images

Located in Durham, N.C., Duke University is a private university. The southern school, known for its strong athletic program, offers 4,000 courses each semester. The most popular major among Duke undergrads is computer science, and 83% of students study more than just one major.

Athletic conference: ACC
Division I NCAA championships (2018 - 2019): women's golf
CNBC Make It ranking: 10, private schools

Average net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $7,880
Median salary for alumni with 0-5 years of experience: $68,700
Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $133,100
Salary average, early and mid career: $100,900

Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta

Georgia Tech

Georgia Institute of Technology, often referred to as "Georgia Tech," is a public university located in Atlanta. The school offers technology-focused education to more than 25,000 undergraduate and graduate students across six colleges and 28 schools focusing on business, computing, design, engineering, the liberal arts and sciences.

Athletic conference: ACC
Division I NCAA championships (2018 - 2019): n/a
CNBC Make It ranking: 5, public schools

Average net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $12,284
Median salary for alumni with 0-5 years of experience: $70,800
Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $131,900
Salary average, early and mid career: $101,350

North Carolina State University, Raleigh

North Carolina State University
DenisTangneyJr | Getty Images

NC State University in Raleigh, N.C., is a public university that enrolls roughly 35,479 students. The public university is known for its veterinary medicine program.

Athletic conference: ACC
Division I NCAA championships (2018 - 2019): n/a
CNBC Make It ranking: 22, public schools

Average net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $13,244
Median salary for alumni with 0-5 years of experience: $55,800
Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $104,700
Salary average, early and mid career: $80,250

Purdue University, West Lafayette

Purdue University
Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Purdue University's campus in West Lafayette, Ind., is the flagship campus of the Purdue University system. The public university enrolls 32,672 undergraduate students. Known for its strong engineering program, 28% of undergraduate students at Purdue study in the College of Engineering.

Athletic conference: Big 10
Division I NCAA championships (2018 - 2019): n/a
CNBC Make It ranking: 6, public schools

Average net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $10,828
Median salary for alumni with 0-5 years of experience: $60,200
Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $105,800
Salary average, early and mid career: $83,000

Stanford University

Stanford University
David Butow | Getty Images

Stanford University, often referred to as a "West Coast Ivy," is located near Silicon Valley in Stanford, Calif. The highly selective school is known for its strong science, technology and engineering programs, as well as its successful athletics programs. Stanford enrolls approximately 7,083 undergraduate students.

Athletic conference: Pac-12
Division I NCAA championships (2018 - 2019): women's volleyball, men's gymnastics, women's swimming and diving, men's golf, women's tennis and women's water polo
CNBC Make It ranking: 1, private schools

Average net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $4,061
Median salary for alumni with 0-5 years of experience: $76,500
Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $143,100
Salary average, early and mid career: $109,800

University of California, Berkeley

University of California, Berkeley
Rick Gerharter | Getty Images

University of California, Berkeley, is the flagship school of the University of California system. Located in Berkeley, Calif., near San Francisco, the university enrolls some 30,853 undergraduate students. The school is home to the Haas School of Business.

Athletic conference: Pac-12
Division I NCAA championships (2018 - 2019): men's swimming and diving
CNBC Make It ranking: 25, public schools

Average net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $17,413
Median salary for alumni with 0-5 years of experience: $68,300
Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $132,300
Salary average, early and mid career: $100,300

University of California, Los Angeles

UCLA
Al Seib | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images

One of the most selective schools in the University of California school system, the University of California, Los Angeles, is known for its strong athletics department. The most popular majors at UCLA are biology, business economics, political science, psychology and psychobiology.

Athletic conference: Pac-12
Division I NCAA championships (2018 - 2019): beach volleyball and softball
CNBC Make It ranking: 9, public schools

Average net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $12,416
Median salary for alumni with 0-5 years of experience: $60,000
Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $118,500
Salary average, early and mid career: $89,250

University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

University of Michigan
tiny-al | Getty Images

University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, is the flagship campus of the University of Michigan school system. The public university offers 263 degree programs, enrolls 29,026 undergraduate students and is known for its athletics program.

Athletic conference: Big 10
Division I NCAA championships (2018 - 2019): n/a
CNBC Make It ranking: 4, public schools

Average net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $10,106
Median salary for alumni with 0-5 years of experience: $62,000
Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $107,900
Salary average, early and mid career: $84,950

University of Virginia, Charlottesville

University of Virginia
Source: Dan Addison | UVA University Communications

The University of Virginia is a public university located in Charlottesville, Va. Founded by Thomas Jefferson, the public university enrolls approximately 16,777 undergraduate students and is known for its law and business schools as well as for its strong athletics program.

Athletic conference: ACC
Division I NCAA championships (2018 - 2019): men's basketball and men's lacrosse
CNBC Make It ranking: 17, public schools

Average net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $14,374
Median salary for alumni with 0-5 years of experience: $62,300
Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $119,900
Salary average, early and mid career: $91,100

University of Washington, Seattle

University of Washington
Nikko Hellstern | Getty Images

The University of Washington, Seattle, is the flagship school of the University of Washington school system. The large public university offers more than 180 majors and is known for its computer science program.

Athletic conference: Pac-12
Division I NCAA championships (2018 - 2019): rowing
CNBC Make It ranking: 1, public schools

Average net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $8,984
Median salary for alumni with 0-5 years of experience: $59,900
Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $111,800
Salary average, early and mid career: $85,850

Vanderbilt University

Vanderbilt University
Vanderbilt | Collegiate Images | Getty Images

Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., is a private, nonprofit university. Undergraduate Vanderbilt students can earn bachelor's degrees from the College of Arts and Science, the Blair School of Music, the School of Engineering and the Peabody College of Education and Human Development.

Athletic conference: SEC
Division I NCAA championships (2018 - 2019): baseball
CNBC Make It ranking: 12, private schools

Average net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $8,451
Median salary for alumni with 0-5 years of experience: $63,800
Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $118,400
Salary average, early and mid career: $91,100

Like this story? Subscribe to CNBC Make It on YouTube!

Don't miss: Clayton Christensen Institute co-founder: This equation reveals how much you should borrow for college

VIDEO4:1604:16
Michael Horn: How to tell if your degree is worth the money
Virginia Cavaliers fans cheer during the 2019 NCAA Photos via Getty Images men's Final Four National Championship game at U.S. Bank Stadium on April 08, 2019 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Brett Wilhelm/NCAA Photos via Getty Images
make it

Stay in the loop

Sign Up

About Us

Learn More

Follow Us

CNBC.COM