Definitive Guide to College

The top 10 private US colleges that pay off have one thing in common—they're super hard to get into

People walk past a tiger statue on the Princeton University campus in Princeton, New Jersey
Craig Warga/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Going to college is a major investment. Though experts agree that earning a college degree pays off, the costs can be overwhelming.

CNBC Make It analyzed data from colleges and universities across the country to determine the top 50 U.S. colleges that pay off the most, and found that there is a wide range of schools that offer students a top-notch education at low net costs. The top 10 private U.S. colleges on our list, in particular, provide a significant premium for students that attend.

But there's a catch: They're all extremely difficult to get into.

Students applying for a spot in the class of 2022 at these prestigious private schools faced tough odds. Fewer than 10% of applicants were accepted at each of the top 10 private schools on our list, with individual school acceptance rates ranging from 4.3% at Stanford to 8.6% at Duke. The average acceptance rate at these 10 schools is 6.2%.

Acceptance rates at these well-known schools are low because they receive a high volume of applications and enroll relatively low numbers of students. Many experts attribute the uptick in applications to the common application and online application portals in general, which made it easier for students to apply to multiple schools. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, in 1990, 9% of college freshmen applied to seven or more schools. By 2016, this percentage had increased to 35%.

And at elite schools like Harvard and Stanford, applications don't just arrive in high volume. The bulk are also of high quality. "When Harvard says they accept 6%, they're saying '6% of students like you.' They're not saying '6% of students in general,'" Vielka Hoy, CEO of Bridge to College and program associate at Stanford's school of education, tells CNBC Make It.

"What I'm seeing is a lot of really high-achieving students with no colleges to go to because they only applied to the Ivies, MIT and Stanford," Hoy says. "They're applying to only the most selective schools in hopes of one of them admitting them and then completely ignoring tier-two schools."

Increasing class sizes takes time (and money)

Some of the elite schools on our list, like Princeton, which ranked No. 2 among private schools, are looking to expand the size of their student body.

Princeton spokesperson Ben Chang tells CNBC Make It that in the aftermath of the Varsity Blues scandal, some have suggested that elite private schools should accept more students, which would lower incentives to "cheat the system."

"But to expand a class means you need to have beds to sleep in. If one of the things we value are small classrooms, because of the type of educational exchange you have, then you need to hire more professors," says Chang. "All of a sudden it creates this whole set of infrastructure issues that take time to address."

In 2018, Princeton announced that it had received an estimated $65 million gift from the Perelman Family Foundation to build a new residential college that could help the school fulfill a goal of expanding their undergraduate population of 5,260 students by 10%. "Something like the gift that the Perelman family [made] gives us is the ability to increase the number of students we can have come in — but that takes five years."

The University of Chicago
Bob Krist | Getty Images

Princeton is one of 319 colleges that joined the American Talent Initiative (ATI), a coalition of schools that have made a commitment to attract, enroll and graduate an additional 50,000 lower-income students by 2025. To meet these ambitious goals, Princeton tweaked their recruitment and admissions approaches.

"You can't rely on the traditional pipelines of where you get your students. You need to go into the communities where that talent can be found," says Chang.

The University of Chicago, which ranked No. 3 on our list of private colleges is also a member of ATI and revamped its admissions department the past decade. The UChicago admissions website states that the median total SAT scores for the class of 2022 is between 1490 and 1560, but Meredith Day, Associate Vice President of Enrollment and Student Advancement at the University of Chicago, says the school is looking for several factors beyond standardized test scores.

"The University of Chicago is always looking for students who want to engage intellectually and can make the most of their college experience and contribute to the experience of their peers as well," she says. "Students that participate in the classroom, participate in research labs, participate in professional opportunities. They're incredibly curious, they ask good questions, they come from all sorts of backgrounds."

Public schools can be easier to get into but harder to graduate from

Acceptance rates are much higher at public universities. "We receive about 45,000 freshmen applications each year," says Paul Seegert, director of admissions at the University of Washington in Seattle, which ranked No. 1 among public universities on our list. "Because we're a public university the admit rates are different for Washington residents versus non-residents."

Seegert says that the university receives about 12,000 applications from in-state students each year and that roughly two-thirds of spaces in each class are reserved for these students. He estimates that the school's acceptance rate is about 60% for in-state students, about 50% for out-of-state students and about 40% for international students.

Most colleges and universities, including the University of Washington, publish information about the median grades of incoming students. Seegert recommends that students look at these academic profiles of schools they are interested in to see if they are a good fit and if they have a chance of being accepted. "There's no way to know for sure whether a student is going to end up being competitive or not until they apply, because there's not a formula," he says. "There's really no way to know on without giving it a try."

While public universities tend to have both higher acceptance rates and higher dropout rates, The University of Washington is among the best public institutions when it comes to graduating a significant portion of their students on time. But just because a school is easy to get into, doesn't mean it is easy to graduate from.

"Schools with the lower admissions rates also have the higher graduation rates," says Hoy. "The first thing that students and families usually do is they look for the schools that they think they can get into the easiest, but those are usually ones that they can't get out of the easiest."

Many factors contribute to comparatively lower graduation rates at public universities. Financial barriers can force middle- and low-income students to take time away from their studies, some students struggle to get into classes they need to take in order to graduate and smaller private colleges are able to provide more administrative support to students.

According to David Kirp, professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of "The College Dropout Scandal," 60% of all college students who enroll in a four-year college or university earn a degree in six years. Those percentages drop to 50% at public universities and 40% at community colleges.

He says that while acceptance rates are an issue, on-time graduation is a greater challenge.

"The drop out crisis is real and important and is costing us billions of dollars and uncounted amounts in terms of the impact on students' lives," Kirp tells CNBC Make It. "There's a problem and it's frankly, it's a bigger problem then the college access issue. Getting students into college is a whole lot easier than getting them to graduate."

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