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Three generations of alumni, the Karentz Family at graduation

Each year, high school students across the U.S. march through campuses on guided tours, pore over course catalogs, and frantically check mailboxes and inboxes for letters granting them admission to the next phase of life: college.

College costs can be difficult to estimate, and even for college applicants with the foresight to research things like debt balances at graduation and average alumni salaries, outcomes can be challenging to quantify. Sticker prices published by universities do not include grants, scholarships or loans. Financial aid awards can change from year to year. Housing, travel, books and other personal expenses can add up quickly. And less than half, 41%, of first-time, full-time college students earn their bachelor’s degree in four years. Many of them end up paying for more than four years of college, driving up the cost of attendance significantly.

Overall costs have risen steadily increased over the past several decades, the fastest at four-year public universities. According to the College Board’s 2018 Trends in College Pricing Report, from 1988 to 2018, sticker prices doubled at private nonprofit four-year schools, but tripled for in-state students at four-year public universities. During the 2018-2019 school year, published tuition and fees at public four‐year schools averaged $10,230 for in‐state students and $26,290 for out-of-state students.

CNBC Make It's Analysis

But when CNBC "Make It" ranked the top 50 US colleges that pay off the most, spotlighting 50 schools that provide students the highest average salaries for their education dollars, we found that many public universities still provide a high-quality education at a reasonable price. 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 tuition dollars.

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.