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What College Degree Will Give You the Highest Paycheck? Here Are the Top Schools to Consider

College is viewed by many economists — and parents — as key to securing a rewarding, well-paying job. New research now indicates that which college you attend can also have a lifelong impact on your earnings, with grads from top-ranked universities such as Princeton and MIT far out-earning the typical college grad. 

By mid-career, or at least 10 years after their diploma, alums of Princeton and MIT received the highest salaries among all college grads, at almost $190,000 annually on average, according to a new analysis from PayScale. Meanwhile, college graduates between 25 and 64 years old earned median incomes of $74,154 last year, according to recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau. 

Overall, the universities and colleges that lead to the best-paying careers after graduation are Ivy League colleges, technical universities such as MIT and private academies, PayScale said of its findings. 

Parents and students are increasingly scrutinizing the cost of a college education and its return on investment given the soaring price of a four-year degree, which has pushed student debt up to $1.8 trillion and has saddled 44 million Americans with loans that could take years to pay off. Increasingly, researchers say there are two factors that can influence the payoff from a bachelor’s degree: A student’s major, as well as the college they attend. 

Elite institutions can help lift a graduate’s earnings, which could be through mechanisms such as alumni support networks or even bias toward grads of these schools. One recent study from Harvard economists found that the impact of getting an elite education can be significant, with grads of Ivy League schools and other top institutions 60% more likely to have incomes among the top 1% compared with those who didn’t attend those colleges.

Payscale’s analysis is based on alumni salary data of 3.47 million respondents, representing 2,475 associate’s and bachelor’s degree-granting institutions throughout the U.S. 


Why Congressman Don Beyer is working toward a college degree while serving in government

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Colleges with the lowest-earning grads

But not every college grad is raking in six-figure-plus salaries, according to PayScale. Indeed, institutions with alums who earn among the lowest mid-career salaries tend to be religious colleges and some state institutions, the analysis found. 

For instance, at the bottom of its rankings are a number of Christian colleges whose grads earn slightly more than $60,000 annually at mid-career. 

That could also be influenced by those colleges’ focus of study, given that Americans who earn theology or related degrees tend to earn less than other college grads. Youth ministry majors earn an average of $61,700 annually at their mid-career level, PayScale found, placing that major at No. 776 out of the 799 majors tracked by the analysis.

You can search PayScale’s database here for your alma mater to see what the typical grad earns at early and mid-career, with the former representing alumni with 0 to 5 years experience and the latter tracking people at least 10 years after graduation.

The top 20 colleges for mid-career pay

1. Princeton University: $189,400 (tied)

1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology: $189,400 (tied)

3. United States Naval Academy: $181,500

4. Harvey Mudd College: $179,600

5. Stanford University: $177,500

6. Babson College: $175,200

7. Colgate University: $173,800

8. Dartmouth College: $173,300

9. Santa Clara University: $173,100

10. University of Pennsylvania: $171,800

11. Harvard University: $171,400

12. United States Military Academy: $171,000

13. Williams College: $169,200

14. Stevens Institute of Technology: $168,700

15. California Institute of Technology: $168,600

16. Yale University: $168,300

17. Lehigh University: $168,200

18. Claremont McKenna College: $167,000 (tie): 

18. University of Berkeley, California: $167,000 (tie)

20. United States Air Force Academy: $166,100

Top and bottom 10 majors by income at mid-career

Top 10: 

1. Petroleum Engineering: $212,500

2. Operations Research & Industrial Engineering: $191,800

3. Interaction Design: $173,600

4. Applied Economics and Management: $164,400

5. Building Science: $163,100

6. Actuarial Mathematics: $160,000 (tie)

6. Operations Research: $160,000 (tie)

8. Systems Engineering: $159,100

9. Optical Science & Engineering: $158,300

10. Information & Computer Science: $157,800

Bottom 10:

1. Early Childhood & Elementary Education: $56,500

2. Outdoor Education: $55,200

3. Baking & Pastry Arts: $54,900

4. Mental health: $52,900

5. Child & Family Studies: $52,700

6. Equine Studies: $52,500

7. Addictions Counseling: $52,200

8. Nonprofit Administration: $52,100

9. Early Childhood Education: $50,600

10. Metalsmithing: $44,900

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