How Colleges and Salaries Match Up

There will always be endless debates about whether an Ivy League school or other highly selective school is worth the price of admission. Now, however, there is hard evidence about the actual payback for attending a certain school. Not that this information is the last word in these debates, but it certainly supplies the numbers one might want to see  when sharpening the pencil and figuring out what are the probable returns associated with attending an UC San Diego instead of a Princeton.

The numbers come from Payscale, Inc. ( ), an on-line service that tracks salary information. Payscale conducted a yearlong survey of 1.2 million bachelor degree graduates with over 10 years of work experience. The participants in the survey had attended over 300 different US schools. Further, to avoid skewing the results of the survey, any graduates with professional degrees (JD, MBA, MD) were eliminated from the survey. (p. D4, Needleman, Sarah, “Ivy Leaguers’ Big Edge: Starting Pay,” Wall Street Journal, 31 July 2009) Note that “mid-career median salary” is defined as at least 10 years after graduation, with a median timeframe of 15.5 years.  You can, of course, go to the website to find all the methodology behind the study.

The survey looked at the starting and mid-career salaries of graduates from the best engineering schools, the best Ivy League schools, the top liberal arts schools, the top state colleges, and, my particular favorite, the top party schools (listed as such by The 2008 Princeton Review College Guide.) The top 3 schools in each of the categories (I excluded the party schools) are at the bottom of this article.

There are some distinct surprises in the survey findings. One is that Ivy League graduates earned a starting salary 32% higher than other liberal arts college graduates. Further, the spread between the two grew to 34% after 10 years in the workforce. So, possibly, there is some magic to the Ivy League cachet.

Yet, even within the Ivy League there is a substantial spread between the head of the league and the bottom. Mid-career Dartmouth graduates are the highest Ivy League earners at $134,000; Columbia’s are the lowest at $107,000: below like graduates from UC Berkeley, Bucknell University (PA), and Colgate (NY) as well.

More interesting still, though engineering graduates have, by far, the highest median starting salaries, 10 years after graduation their median total compensation grew by 76%, while that of “liberal arts” grew 95%.  In short, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to colleges and majors, for determining the surest path to success. Certainly knowledge helps, but apparently, so does having the right contacts to the best opportunities.  Those contacts might be made more effectively at Bucknell, according to this study, than at Columbia. Which leads us to the most realistic conclusion of all: our college careers translate into whatever we can make of them.