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Can Your Alma Mater Influence Lifetime Earnings?

What kind of influence does an individual’s alma mater have on earning potential, both for newly-minted graduates and midcareer professionals? The Best Colleges Website states on its home page that “The quality of the social and economic opportunities available to a person in their lifetime will, in large part, be determined by whether and where they choose to go to school. In some respects, to choose a college is to choose a future [emphasis in the original].” Does this future impact extend 20 years post-graduation?

PayScale’s 2017 College Salary Report says yes. The organization collects, organizes and maintains data from the largest real-time salary survey in the world. For this report, their analysts surveyed 2.3 million graduates of more than 2700 colleges and universities, asking respondents to provide school name, major, highest degree earned, and pay.

The results do not necessarily parallel lists of more conventional “best” schools for different majors. For example, for bachelor’s degrees in engineering, the top five schools for salary potential are Stanford, Columbia, University of California-Berkeley, Harvey Mudd College, and the US Naval Academy. While Stanford, Columbia and UC-Berkeley often make top 10 lists, Mudd and Annapolis generally do not.

By focusing on earnings potential the PayScale report eliminates factors that other college ranking services consider, everything from student:faculty ratios to quality of dormitory food. Other reports come up with “value” metrics, weighing the cost of a State U education against Famous U on variables like the time it takes a graduate to get a job and starting salaries.

Payscale also lists 2017’s careers with the highest salary potential. Unsurprisingly, all of the top 15 are some flavor of STEM, led by petroleum engineering. This Engineering360 article gives more detail about top-earning specialties.

One oft-cited justification for attending a highly-selective, pricey private university or college is the value of such a school’s “brand.” Based on PayScale’s research, these schools do give engineering graduates a quantifiable earnings edge. The mix of selective schools in the earnings top tier is not necessarily in the same order as less-focused rankings, but overall the same schools are in both groups. Students also need to remember that “highly-selective” means schools admit, and graduate, highly-qualified students who could be expected to remain high achievers throughout their careers.