Background This study evaluated the cost-effectiveness of combination chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and surgical intervention (CRS) vs definitive chemotherapy and radiotherapy (CR) in clinical stage IIIA non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) patients at academic and nonacademic centers. Methods Patients with clinical stage IIIA NSCLC receiving CR or CRS from 1998 to 2010 were identified in the National Cancer Data Base. Propensity score matching on patient, tumor, and treatment characteristics was performed. Medicare allowable charges were used for treatment costs. The incremental cost-effectiveness ratio (ICER) was based on probabilistic 5-year survival and calculated as cost per life-year gained. Results We identified 5,265 CR and CRS matched patient pairs. Surgical resection imparted an increased effectiveness of 0.83 life-years, with an ICER of $17,618. Among nonacademic centers, 1,634 matched CR and CRS patients demonstrated a benefit with surgical resection of 0.86 life-years gained, for an ICER of $17,124. At academic centers, 3,201 matched CR and CRS patients had increased survival of 0.81 life-years with surgical resection, for an ICER of $18,144. Finally, 3,713 CRS patients were matched between academic and nonacademic centers. Academic center surgical patients had an increased effectiveness of 1.5 months gained and dominated the model with lower surgical cost estimates associated with lower 30-day mortality rates. Conclusions In stage IIIA NSCLC, the selective addition of surgical resection to CR is cost-effective compared with definitive chemoradiation therapy at nonacademic and academic centers. These conclusions are valid over a range of clinically meaningful variations in cost and treatment outcomes.