Definitive Guide to College

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

The University of Washington-Bothell
Courtesy of UWB

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

Today, college graduates on average earn 80% more than those with just a high school diploma. At the same time, college costs have risen significantly over the past decade, increasing the fastest at four-year public universities.

One reason that costs at public universities have risen so significantly is that state and federal funding for higher education was cut in the aftermath of the 2008 recession. As the United States endures the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, such cuts have begun again, causing experts to fear costs will further increase. 

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 — including 25 private and 25 public colleges — that provide students the highest average salaries for their tuition dollars.

For our ranking, we divide the net cost of 250 schools by the average earnings of graduates 10 years after entering the workforce. At public colleges, we considered costs for in-state students. (You can read our full methodology here.)

What we found is that many public schools are able to keep costs low for in-state students while also preparing graduates for successful professional careers. 

Click to expand.

The University of Washington, Bothell is the highest-ranked public university on our list this year. UWB reports that it costs $11,745 for in-state students and $39,114 for out-of-state students to attend during the upcoming 2020-2021 school year, but according to The Hechinger Report, the net cost for an in-state UWB student from a family that earns between $48,001 and $75,000 is roughly $6,812 per year.

And PayScale reports that UWB graduates with more than 10 years of experience report average salaries of $108,000 per year. 

"We believe in the power of a UW Bothell degree to transform lives and uplift communities," says Sharon A. Jones, UW Bothell vice chancellor for academic affairs. "The coronavirus pandemic has shifted our focus to remote instruction and allowed us to reflect on what we do well now and how we can further improve our student support infrastructure. We are making those investments that will allow us to continue our mission to increase access to an excellent education."

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

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

1. University of Washington-Bothell

The University of Washington-Bothell
Courtesy of UWB

The University of Washington, Bothell offers roughly 55 degree programs and enrolls just 5,364 undergraduate students. At UWB, 96% of first-year students come from Washington State and 40% of first-year students are the first in their families to earn a four-year degree.

Average annual net cost for in-state students (income $48,001-$75,000): $6,812 

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $108,000 

2. CUNY Baruch College

CUNY Bernard M Baruch College
Ben Hider/Getty Images

Baruch College is one of 11 four-year colleges in The City University of New York school system. The university is known for its business program and enrolls approximately 15,482 undergraduate students. The most popular majors at Baruch include accounting, finance and marketing.

Average annual net cost for in-state students (income $48,001-$75,000): $8,425

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $107,100 

3. 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 university enrolls roughly 28,959 undergraduate students and offers more than 180 majors. The school is known for its computer science program.

Average annual net cost for in-state students (income $48,001-$75,000): $9,349 

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $112,300 

4. Purdue University-West Lafayette

Purdue University
Michael Hickey/Getty Images

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

Average annual net cost for in-state students (income $48,001-$75,000): $9,342

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $110,000 

5. University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

University of Michigan
tiny-al | Getty Images

The flagship campus of the University of Michigan school system is the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. The university offers 275 degree programs, enrolls 31,266 undergraduate students and is known for its athletics program.

Average annual net cost for in-state students (income $48,001-$75,000): $11,035 

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $112,200 

6. Massachusetts Maritime Academy

Massachusetts Maritime Academy
Courtesy of Massachusetts Maritime Academy

Massachusetts Maritime Academy is a college located in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts. It offers bachelor's and master's of science degrees in marine engineering fields. Many MMA students choose to volunteer for military service, though it is not a requirement.

Average annual net cost for in-state students (income $48,001-$75,000): $11,975 

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $117,500 

7. University of Houston

Sign for the University of Houston hanging on Ezekiel W Cullen Building in Houston, TX.
Getty Images

The University of Houston in Houston, Texas, is a large research university that enrolls some 37,689 undergraduate students each year. Undergraduates at UH can choose from 108 majors and 132 minors.

Average annual net cost for in-state students (income $48,001-$75,000): $11,685 

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $103,900 

8. 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, California, near San Francisco, the university enrolls some 31,348 undergraduate students. The school is home to the Haas School of Business.

Average annual net cost for in-state students (income $48,001-$75,000): $15,375

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $131,800 

9. William & Mary

College of William and Mary
Will Pryce/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images

Founded in 1693, William & Mary is the second-oldest college in the country. The university, which is located in Williamsburg, Virginia, is often referred to as a "Public Ivy." The school offers a joint degree program with the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Average annual net cost for in-state students (income $48,001-$75,000): $12,794

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $108,900 

10. 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. Some of the most popular majors at UCLA are biology, business economics, political science, psychology and psychobiology.

Average annual net cost for in-state students (income $48,001-$75,000): $13,649

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $116,100 

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