Stanford University
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Definitive Guide to College

The top 10 private colleges that pay off the most in 2020

Over the past several decades, college costs have risen significantly and some private colleges boast striking sticker prices of over $70,000 per year. But many private colleges also offer significant financial aid, which can considerably curtail these costs. 

That's why for the second annual CNBC Make It "Colleges that Pay off the Most" ranking, we consider the average net cost of a school for students from families that make between $48,001 and $75,000 per year. The net cost of attending a school takes tuition, fees, books, supplies — and importantly scholarships and grants — into account.

For our ranking, we divide the net cost of 250 schools by the average earnings of graduates 10 years after entering the workforce. (You can read our full methodology here.)

What we found is that many private colleges with large sticker prices still manage to keep costs low for average American families. 

For instance, Stanford University takes first place on our list again this year. Stanford reports that it costs a total of $78,218 to attend the school during the upcoming 2020-2021 school year, but according to The Hechinger Report, the net cost for a Stanford student from a family that earns between $48,001 and $75,000 is closer to just $3,490 per year.

And PayScale reports that Stanford graduates with more than 10 years of experience report average salaries of $145,200 per year. 

While college tuition continues to rise, there are private colleges like Stanford throughout the U.S. that are able to keep net costs low, while also setting students up for success.

Here are the top 10 private colleges that pay off the most of 2020: 

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

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. Known for its strong engineering program, 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, such as 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

MIT
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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

Duke University
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Duke University is located in Durham, North Carolina. 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.

Average annual net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $9,048

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $132,100 

9. Columbia University

Columbia University
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Columbia University is an 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.

Average annual net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $8,874

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $126,800 

10. Pomona College

Pomona College
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Pomona College is located in Claremont, California. The curriculum at the highly selective school is broad and requires students take at least one course in each of six areas: criticism, analysis and contextual study of works of the human imagination; social institutions and human behavior; history, values, ethics and cultural studies; physical and biological sciences; mathematical reasoning; and creation and performance of works of art and literature.

Average annual net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $8,267 

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $117,200 

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