Stanford University
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Definitive Guide to College

The top 50 U.S. colleges that pay off the most in 2020


The coronavirus pandemic has dramatically changed what it means to attend — and apply to — college. 

While many schools are planning to bring some students back to campus this fall, there is no guarantee that students will receive the traditional on-campus college experience.

At the same time, college costs have risen significantly over the past decade, while advancements in technology, especially automation, are making it harder to earn a living wage without some type of higher degree. Today, college graduates on average earn 80% more than those with just a high school diploma.

College is more expensive — and important — than ever before, and this dichotomy puts students in a difficult situation.

And because the coronavirus pandemic has considerably changed the on-campus experience — the benefits of which are impossible to quantify — more students and their parents are questioning the high price of tuition. This year more than ever, students have to ask, "Is this college worth the cost?"

CNBC Make It aims to provide the information students need to balance these considerations through our annual "50 Colleges that Pay Off the Most" ranking. The list spotlights 50 schools that provide students the highest average salaries for their tuition dollars.

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For our ranking, we divided the average net cost of a school for the average American student (taking tuition, fees, books, supplies and scholarships into account) by the average earnings of graduates 10 years after entering the workforce. 

We calculated the average net cost using data from Tuition Tracker, a tool created by education-focused nonprofit news organization The Hechinger Report, and we calculated average earnings using data from the top 250 schools included in PayScale's College Salary Report, specifically considering the average earnings that college graduates report 10 years after graduating.

Next, 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. We looked at the net cost for students from families making between $48,001 and $75,000, an income range established by the Department of Education. We chose to focus on this bracket because it includes the median U.S. household income, $61,372, as defined by the most recent 2018 census data.

The Hechinger Report calculates net cost by subtracting federal, state, local and institutional grants and scholarships from the sticker price for first-time, full-time (and, at public universities, in-state) undergraduates based on data provided by the U.S. Department of Education.

We excluded tuition-free institutions from the list, including military schools like West Point and U.S. Naval Academy, because the cost of post-college military service introduces an additional factor that's challenging to measure against other schools. For this reason, we also excluded military colleges that require ROTC service. You can read more about our methodology here

Stanford University takes first place on the list. According to The Hechinger Report, the net cost for a student from a family that earns between $48,001 and $75,000 is $3,490 per year. Stanford graduates with more than 10 years of experience report average salaries of $145,200.

According to PayScale, 51% of Stanford students major in a science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) field, a factor that contributes to high average salaries among graduates. And Stanford is known for providing robust financial aid. The average scholarship and grant total for students from families making less than $65,000 annually is $78,309 per year. Students from families making between $65,000 and $95,000 receive $68,323 on average in scholarships and grant aid.

The top U.S. colleges that pay off in 2020
The top U.S. colleges that pay off in 2020

While prestigious Ivy League schools such as Harvard and Princeton get top marks, a wide range of schools from across the U.S. are represented here. State schools like the University of Washington-Seattle, small liberal arts colleges like Pomona College in Claremont, California and STEM-focused schools like Georgia Institute of Technology also appear on this list, indicating that you don't have to attend the Ivy League to get a great return on your college investment.

Here is CNBC Make It's 2020 list of the top 50 U.S. colleges that pay off the most:

The top 25 private universities

1. Stanford University

Stanford University
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Stanford University, often referred to as a "West Coast Ivy," is located near Silicon Valley in Stanford, California. 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.

Average annual net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $3,490

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $145,200 

2. Harvard University

Harvard University
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Founded in 1636, Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is the oldest college in the United States. Harvard is known for its historic legacy, famous alumni and generous financial aid, which the university is able to provide in part because of an endowment worth approximately $39.2 billion. Harvard students select "concentrations" instead of majors and one of the most popular is economics.

Average annual net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $3,900

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $146,800 

3. University of Chicago

The University of Chicago
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The University of Chicago is located 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.

Average annual net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $5,454

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $114,200 

4. Princeton University

Princeton University 
Photo: Princeton University, Office of Communications.

Princeton University was founded in 1746, making it the fourth-oldest college in the United States. Undergraduate Princeton students study one of 37 concentrations and must be proficient in at least one language other than English. Approximately 25% of undergraduates at the Ivy League school study in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Average annual net cost (income $48,001-$75,000):$7,435

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $139,400 

5. Dartmouth College

Dartmouth College
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Dartmouth College is an Ivy League university located in Hanover, New Hampshire, that enrolls approximately 4,400 undergraduate students and is known for its graduate programs, including the Tuck School of Business.

Average annual net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $7,167 

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $130,900

6. Yale University

Yale University
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Located in New Haven, Connecticut, Yale is an Ivy League university. Founded in 1701, Yale is the third-oldest college in the United States. Yale teaches a liberal arts curriculum and requires students take classes in humanities and arts; sciences and social sciences; foreign languages; quantitative reasoning; and writing.

Average annual net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $8,051

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $138,300 

7. Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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Massachusetts Institute of Technology is a STEM-focused university located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Instead of majors, MIT students choose a "course" to specialize in. Electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and computer science are among the most popular courses at MIT.

Average annual net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $9,580 

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $155,200

8. Duke University