The top 10 US colleges that pay off the most in big cities

Students sit in front of Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Geography is one of the first factors students consider when deciding where to go to college. Do they want the charm of a quaint college town? The bustle of a big city? Something in-between?

For students with their minds set on studying in a big city, the next factor to consider is cost.

The elevated cost of living can make going to college in a city a challenge for many students, but when CNBC Make It compared hundreds of colleges and universities across the country to create our first list of the U.S. colleges that pay off the most, we found that many of the top-ranking schools located in major cities were able to keep costs low for students and graduate high-earning alumni.

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 identify the schools providing the best value for students who want to study in a large city, we took a look at the 300 U.S. cities with the biggest total populations, according to the U.S. Census. Twenty-four schools on CNBC Make It's list are located in one of these major cities. Fifteen are in cities with more than 250,000 people.

Several schools located just outside of city limits did not make the list. Harvard and MIT both enjoy close proximity to Boston, which has an estimated population of 694,583, but the schools are actually located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the population is 118,977.

Similarly, California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, did not make the list despite being relatively close to Los Angeles, the second most populated city in the U.S., and University of California, Berkeley, did not make the cut despite being relatively close to San Francisco.

Here are the 15 U.S. colleges in big cities that pay off the most:

Baruch College

CUNY Bernard M Baruch College
Ben Hider/Getty Images

Baruch College is one of 13 four-year colleges in The City University of New York school system. The public university is known for its business program and enrolls approximately 15,024 undergraduate students. The most popular majors at Baruch include accounting, finance and marketing.

Location: New York, NY
Census population estimate: 8,398,748
CNBC Make It ranking: 10, public schools

Average net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $11,473
Median salary for alumni with 0-5 years of experience: $57,100
Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $107,600
Salary average, early and mid career: $82,350

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.

Location: New York, NY
Census population estimate: 8,398,748
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, North Carolina, 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.

Location: Durham, NC
Census population estimate: 274,291
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.

Location: Atlanta, GA
Census population estimate: 498,044
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, North Carolina, is a public university that enrolls roughly 35,479 students. The public university is known for its veterinary medicine program.

Location: Raleigh, NC
Census population estimate: 469,298
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

Rice University

Rice University
Craig Hartley | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Rice University is a private, nonprofit university located in Houston. Undergraduate students at Rice can study more than 50 different majors in the George R. Brown School of Engineering, the Shepherd School of Music, the School of Architecture, the School of Humanities, the School of Social Sciences and the Wiess School of Natural Sciences.

Location: Houston, TX
Census population estimate: 2,325,502
CNBC Make It ranking: 15, private schools

Average net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $10,080
Median salary for alumni with 0-5 years of experience: $69,200
Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $133,600
Salary average, early and mid career: $101,400

The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art

Cooper Union Campus
Source: Mario Morgado | Courtesy of The Cooper Union

The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art Engineering, also referred to as "The Cooper Union," is a private college located in New York City comprised of three schools specializing in architecture, art and engineering.

Location: New York, NY
Census population estimate: 8,398,748
CNBC Make It ranking: 23, private schools

Average net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $12,743
Median salary for alumni with 0-5 years of experience: $65,900
Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $128,300
Salary average, early and mid career: $97,100

University of Chicago

The University of Chicago
Bob Krist | Getty Images

The University of Chicago is a private, nonprofit university in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood. The school is known for its strong STEM programs, but the curriculum also requires students to complete courses in three areas: humanities, civilization studies and the arts; natural sciences; and social sciences.

Location: Chicago, IL
Census population estimate: 2,705,994
CNBC Make It ranking: 3, private schools

Average net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $4,536
Median salary for alumni with 0-5 years of experience: $61,600
Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $117,500
Salary average, early and mid career: $89,550

University of California, Irvine

School of Biological Sciences, University of California at Irvine
Source: WikiMedia Commons

University of California, Irvine, is one of 10 campuses in the University of California school system. In 2018, the public university enrolled approximately 29,736 undergraduate students. UCI is known for its engineering and criminal justice programs.

Location: Irvine, CA
Census population estimate: 282,572
CNBC Make It ranking: 15, public schools

Average net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $13,820
Median salary for alumni with 0-5 years of experience: $57,700
Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $121,800
Salary average, early and mid career: $89,750

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.

Location: Los Angeles, CA
Census population estimate: 3,990,456
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 California, Riverside

UC Riverside
Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Part of the University of California system, University of California, Riverside, is a public university that offers more than 80 undergraduate majors across five schools. Located east of Los Angeles, UCR enrolls roughly 20,581 undergraduate students.

Location: Riverside, CA
Census population estimate: 330,063
CNBC Make It ranking: 12, public schools

Average net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $11,685
Median salary for alumni with 0-5 years of experience: $54,000
Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $109,300
Salary average, early and mid career: $81,650

University of California, San Diego

University Of California, San Diego
Education Images | Getty Images

University of California, San Diego, is part of the University of California school system and is located in La Jolla, California. The public university enrolls approximately 30,285 undergraduate students and is known both for its fine arts program and its engineering program.

Location: San Diego, CA
Census population estimate: 1,425,976
CNBC Make It ranking: 11, public schools

Average net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $13,367
Median salary for alumni with 0-5 years of experience: $61,300
Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $126,800
Salary average, early and mid career: $94,050

University of Pennsylvania

University of Pennsylvania
Margie Politzer | Lonely Planet Images | Getty Images

The University of Pennsylvania is a private university known for its business program. Undergraduate students at this Ivy League school can choose from more than 90 majors across four schools: the College for Arts and Sciences, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the School of Nursing and the Wharton Business School.

Location: Philadelphia, PA
Census population estimate: 1,584,138
CNBC Make It ranking: 17, private schools

Average net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $12,322
Median salary for alumni with 0-5 years of experience: $70,100
Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $135,800
Salary average, early and mid career: $102,950

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.

Location: Seattle, WA
Census population estimate: 744,955
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, Tennessee, 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.

Location: Nashville, TN
Census population estimate: 669,053
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
Students sit in front of Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
make it

Stay in the loop

Sign Up

About Us

Learn More

Follow Us

CNBC.COM