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.

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

DenisTangneyJr | iStock | Getty Images

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

Bob Krist | Getty Images

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

Cheryl Senter/Bloomberg | Getty Images

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

Yana Paskova / Stringer (Getty Images)

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

Kevin Fleming | Corbis Documentary | Getty Images

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

Lance King | Getty Images

Duke University is located in Durham, North Carolina. The southern school offers 4,000 courses each semester, and is also known for its strong athletic program. The most popular major among Duke undergrads is computer science, and 83% of students have more than 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 they 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

Ted Soqui | Corbis | Getty Images

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 

11. Williams College

Williams College

John Greim | LightRocket | Getty Images

This highly respected liberal arts college is based in Williamstown, Massachusetts. All Williams students take at least two writing-intensive courses as well several courses in the arts and humanities, social sciences, and science and mathematics. Williams enrolls approximately 2,000 undergraduate students.

Average annual net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $9,470 

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $127,500 

12. California Institute of Technology

California Institute of Technology

Danita Delimont | Getty Images

California Institute of Technology, known as CalTech, is an 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 annual net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $12,670

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $151,600

13. Washington and Lee University

Washington and Lee

Doug Plummer | Washington and Lee University

Washington and Lee is a liberal arts university located in Lexington, Virginia. The small southern university is composed of two undergraduate schools: the Williams School of Commerce, Economics and Politics — which offers degrees in business administration, business administration and accounting, public accounting, economics and politics — as well as a liberal arts school referred to as “the College” that offers 40 different majors.

Average annual net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $10,319 

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $123,200 

14. Colby College

Colby College

Gregory Rec | Portland Press Herald | Getty Images

Located in Waterville, Maine, Colby College was founded in 1813. The small liberal arts school follows a unique 4-1-4 academic calendar, in which the month of January is “devoted to intensive study, career exploration or cultural immersion.”

Average annual net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $8,731

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $103,300 

15. Barnard College (tie)

Barnard College

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Barnard is a historically women’s college in New York City. The school has its own academic requirements, faculty and board of trustees, but it is also considered one of Columbia University’s four undergraduate colleges — a partnership that gives Barnard students access to Columbia’s libraries, facilities and classes. 

Average annual net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $9,482

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $109,800

15. Rice University (tie)

Rice University

Craig Hartley | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Rice University is located in Houston, Texas. Undergraduate students at Rice can study more than 50 different majors in the George R. Brown School of Engineering, the Shepherd School of Music, the School of Architecture, the School of Humanities, the School of Social Sciences and the Wiess School of Natural Sciences.

Average annual net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $11,194

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $129,500 

17. Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art Engineering

Cooper Union Campus

Source: Mario Morgado | Courtesy of The Cooper Union

The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art Engineering, also referred to as “The Cooper Union,” is located in New York City. It’s comprised of three schools specializing in architecture, art and engineering.

Average annual net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $11,386

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $126,200

18. Washington University in St. Louis

Washington University in St Louis

Christopher A. Jones | Getty Images

Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri enrolls some 6,950 undergraduate students each year. The midwestern school is known for being the home of the Olin Business School and the Washington University School of Law, which became the first chartered law school in America to admit women in 1869.

Average annual net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $10,891

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $114,900 

19. Harvey Mudd College

Harvey Mudd College

Photo: Creative Commons

Founded in 1955, Harvey Mudd is a liberal arts college that focuses on undergraduate engineering and science. The STEM-focused school is located in Claremont, California.

Average annual net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $15,576

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $158,200 

20. Vanderbilt University

Vanderbilt University

Vanderbilt | Collegiate Images | Getty Images

Vanderbilt University is located in Nashville, Tennessee. Undergraduate Vanderbilt students can earn bachelor’s degrees from the College of Arts and Science, the Blair School of Music, the School of Engineering and the Peabody College of Education and Human Development.

Average annual net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $12,824

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $119,100 

21. Brown University

Brown University

Yiming Chen | Getty Images

Brown University is an Ivy League university located in Providence, Rhode Island. It’s known for its flexible “open curriculum” that only requires that students complete at least 30 courses in eight semesters, complete at least one major and “demonstrate excellent skill in written English.”

Average annual net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $14,237

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $127,600 

22. University of Pennsylvania

University of Pennsylvania

Margie Politzer | Lonely Planet Images | Getty Images

Known for its business program, The University of Pennsylvania is an Ivy League university in Philadelphia. Undergraduates can choose from more than 90 majors across four schools: the College for Arts and Sciences, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the School of Nursing and the Wharton School.

Average annual net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $14,990 

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $133,900 

23. Amherst College

Amherst College

Source: Amherst College

Located, in Amherst, Massachusetts, Amherst College enrolls just 1,849 undergraduate students each year. The prestigious liberal arts school is a member of the Five College Consortium, which includes nearby schools such as Mount Holyoke and Smith colleges. 

Average annual net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $13,174

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $116,500 

24. Northwestern University

Northwestern University

Source: Madcoverboy | Wikipedia

Northwestern University is a research university that enrolls over 8,000 undergraduates each year and is located in Evanston, Illinois. The university is the home to the prestigious Kellogg School of Management, the McCormick School of Engineering and the Medill School of Journalism. 

Average annual net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $13,062

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $115,400 

25. Trinity College

Trinity College

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Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, enrolls 2,098 undergraduate and 91 graduate students each year. The school, which was “founded in the Episcopal tradition” offers 41 majors and 28 interdisciplinary minors.

Average annual net cost (income $48,001-$75,000): $12,998

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $110,900 

The top 25 public universities 

1. University of Washington-Bothell

University of Washington Bothell

Photo: Joe Mabel | Wikipedia CC

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

University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, is the flagship campus of the University of Michigan school system. 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 

11. Georgia Institute of Technology-Atlanta

Georgia Institute of Technology, often referred to as “Georgia Tech,” is a located in Atlanta, Georgia. The school offers technology-focused education to more than 25,000 undergraduate and graduate students across six colleges and 28 schools focusing on business, computing, design, engineering, the liberal arts and sciences.

Average annual net cost for in-state students (income $48,001-$75,000): $16,110 

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $133,400

12. West Virginia University Institute of Technology

West Virginia University of Technology campus in Beckley, W. Virginia.

Google Earth

13. University of California-San Diego

University Of California, San Diego

Education Images | Getty Images

University of California, San Diego, is part of the University of California school system and is located in La Jolla, California. The university enrolls approximately 39,633 undergraduate students and is known both for its fine arts program and its engineering program.

Average annual net cost for in-state students (income $48,001-$75,000): $15,170

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $123,700

14. University of California-Riverside

UC Riverside

Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Part of the University of California system, University of California, Riverside, is a university that offers more than 80 undergraduate majors across five schools. Located east of Los Angeles, UCR enrolls roughly 20,055 undergraduate students.

Average annual net cost for in-state students (income $48,001-$75,000): $13,184

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $106,900 

15. Missouri University of Science and Technology

Curtis Laws Wilson Library, Missouri S&T, Rolla, Missouri.

Source: Steveewatkins | WikiMedia Commons

STEM-focused Missouri University of Science and Technology, often called Missouri S&T, is located in Rolla, Missouri. The school’s mission is to integrate “education, research and application to create and convey knowledge that serves our state and helps solve the world’s great challenges.”

Average annual net cost for in-state students (income $48,001-$75,000): $15,243

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $122,600

16. University of California-Irvine

School of Biological Sciences, University of California at Irvine

Source: WikiMedia Commons

University of California, Irvine, is one of 10 campuses in the University of California school system. In 2019, the university enrolled approximately 30,382 undergraduate students. UCI is known for its engineering and criminal justice programs.

Average annual net cost for in-state students (income $48,001-$75,000): $14,746

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $116,000 

17. Michigan Technological University

Michigan Technical University

Jcvertin | Wikipedia CC

Michigan Technological University is located in Houghton, Michigan. The technology-focused school is made up of seven colleges and schools including the College of Computing, the College of Engineering and the School of Business and Economics.

Average annual net cost for in-state students (income $48,001-$75,000): $14,926

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $116,300 

18. University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

Lawrence Sawyer | Getty Images

The University of Minnesota, Twin Cities is a major research university that enrolls roughly 29,617 undergraduate students. The school is known for its medical programs and ties to Minnesota’s medical device industry. 

Average annual net cost for in-state students (income $48,001-$75,000): $13,867

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $104,000 

19. University of California-Davis

University of California, Davis

Billy Hustace | Getty Images

University of California, Davis, known for its food and agriculture program, is part of the University of California school system. The university enrolls approximately 29,431 undergraduate students. The three most popular majors at UC Davis are psychology, managerial economics and economics.

Average annual net cost for in-state students (income $48,001-$75,000): $15,507 

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $112,600  

20. North Carolina State University-Raleigh 

North Carolina State University

DenisTangneyJr | Getty Images

NC State University in Raleigh, North Carolina, is a university that enrolls roughly 25,000 undergraduate students. The state school is known for its veterinary medicine program.

Average annual net cost for in-state students (income $48,001-$75,000): $14,950

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $106,500 

21. New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology Engineering

The campus of New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, or more commonly known as New Mexico Tech in Socorro, New Mexico.

Source: Atomic Energy505 | Wikimedia Commons

New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology is a university that offers associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees primarily in science and engineering. NMT is located in Socorro, New Mexico, approximately 75 miles south of Albuquerque and is known for its chemical engineering, mechanical engineering and computer science programs.

Average annual net cost for in-state students (income $48,001-$75,000): $17,023 

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $120,400 

22. University of California-Santa Barbara

UC Santa Barbara

Patricia Marroquin | Getty Images

The University of California, Santa Barbara, is a university within the University of California school system. During the 2019-2020 school year, UCSB enrolled 23,349 undergraduate students. UCSB is known for its engineering, education and environmental studies programs.

Average annual net cost for in-state students (income $48,001-$75,000): $16,453

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $116,300  

23. Montana Tech

Originally named the Montana State School of Mines, today Montana Tech is part of the University of Montana system, and it’s known for its emphasis on STEM. The university is located in Butte, Montana, and has robust engineering and nursing programs.

Average annual net cost for in-state students (income $48,001-$75,000): $16,281

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $112,600 

24. University of Virginia

University of Virginia

Source: Dan Addison | UVA University Communications

The University of Virginia is located in Charlottesville, Virginia. Founded by Thomas Jefferson, the school enrolls approximately 17,011 undergraduate students and is known for its law and business schools as well as for its strong athletics program.

Average annual net cost for in-state students (income $48,001-$75,000): $16,999

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

25. California State University-East Bay

California State University, East Bay

Andrew Holt | Getty Images

Located in Hayward, California, California State University, East Bay is part of the 23-campus California State University system and offers 136 undergraduate programs. 

Average annual net cost for in-state students (income $48,001-$75,000): $15,467

Median salary for alumni with 10+ years of experience: $103,500 

Did your school make the list? Tell us about your experience at [email protected].

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