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The 10 private US colleges that pay off the most

Abigail Hess

Research consistently demonstrates that college graduates earn more than their peers without degrees, but rising college costs can also scare students into thinking that school may be out of reach for them.

According to the College Board's 2018 Trends in College Pricing Report, during the 2018 - 2019 school year, the tuition at private nonprofit four-year schools was $35,830 on average. But in reality, many students end up paying far less.

These college "sticker prices" include tuition, fees, room and board, but they do not account for scholarships, grants and tax benefits. This means for some students, attending a private college can be surprisingly affordable. In fact, the average net price of tuition and fees in 2019 is $14,610 at private nonprofit four-year schools, and students at these schools typically receive an average $21,220 in grant aid and tax benefits.

CNBC Make It set out to capture the information students would need to balance these considerations. The result is our first list of the U.S. colleges that pay off the most, a ranking that spotlights 50 schools that provide students the highest average salaries for their education dollars. We found that many private colleges and universities can provide students significant value at manageable costs.

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To develop this list, 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, a tool created by education-focused nonprofit news organization The Hechinger Report, we looked at the net cost for students from families making between $48,001 and $75,000. We chose to focus on this bracket because it includes the median U.S. household income, $61,372.

Then, using data from PayScale's College Salary Report, we divided net cost by graduates' expected annual earnings, which was calculated based on the median salary of graduates with less than five years of experience as well as those with 10 or more years of experience. The ranking gives greater weight to workers' earnings in the years immediately after college, when individuals are the most impacted by college costs and student debt. (You can read our full methodology here.)

Stanford University takes first place on the list. The net cost for a student from a family that earns between $48,001 and $75,000 is $4,061 per year. According to Stanford, the average scholarship and grant total for students from families making less than $65,000 a year is $74,095 per year. Students from families making between $65,000 and $95,000 receive $65,050 on average in scholarships and grant aid. Plus, Stanford graduates with more than 10 years of experience report average salaries of $143,100.

But getting into a school like Stanford isn't easy. The acceptance rate for the Stanford class of 2022 was just 4.4%, and other high-ranking private universities reported similarly low acceptance rates.

Here is CNBC Make It's 2019 list of the top 10 U.S. private colleges that pay off the most:

1. Stanford University

Stanford University

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 net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $4,061
Median salary for alumni with 0-5 years of experience: $76,500
Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $143,100
Salary average, early and mid career: $109,800

2. Princeton University

Princeton University 

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 net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $4,557
Median salary for alumni with 0-5 years of experience: $72,700
Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $141,300
Salary average, early and mid career: $107,000

3. University of Chicago

The University of Chicago

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.

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

4. California Institute of Technology

California Institute of Technology

California Institute of Technology, known as CalTech, is a private, nonprofit engineering university located in Pasadena, California. The CalTech curriculum emphasizes STEM education and all students are required to take math, physics, chemistry, biology and scientific communication courses.

Average net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $6,781
Median salary for alumni with 0-5 years of experience: $83,400
Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $143,100
Salary average, early and mid career: $113,250

5. Harvard University

Harvard University

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 net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $6,577
Median salary for alumni with 0-5 years of experience: $72,600
Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $142,600
Salary average, early and mid career: $107,600

6. Yale University

Yale University

Located in New Haven, Connecticut, Yale is a private, 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 net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $6,551
Median salary for alumni with 0-5 years of experience: $68,300
Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $135,400
Salary average, early and mid career: $101,850

7. Columbia University

Columbia University

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.

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

8. Massachusetts Institute of Technology

MIT

Massachusetts Institute of Technology is a STEM-focused private, nonprofit 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 net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $8,633
Median salary for alumni with 0-5 years of experience: $83,600
Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $150,400
Salary average, early and mid career: $117,000

9. Pomona College

Pomona College

Pomona College is one of five private, nonprofit, liberal arts colleges 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 net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $6,975
Median salary for alumni with 0-5 years of experience: $60,500
Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $119,900
Salary average, early and mid career: $90,200

10. Duke University

Duke University

Located in Durham, North Carolina, Duke University is known for its strong athletic program, and 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 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

To view the full list of the 50 US colleges that pay off the most, click here. 

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