The Highest Earners Didn’t Go To Fancy Colleges

The alma mater of the wealthiest grads in Payscale’s College Salary Report will likely surprise you.

The Highest Earners Didn’t Go To Fancy Colleges
[Photo: Flickr user Anders Sandberg]

When it comes to earning potential, it’s no longer enough to have gone to a prestigious school. According to Payscale’s 2015-2016 College Salary Report, released today, the skills that you leave with matter far more than the reputation of your alma mater. In fact, Payscale found that across all company sizes and industries, 71% of employers said that school reputation is the least important factor in terms of hiring decisions.


But the answer is not as simple as majoring in potentially lucrative areas like STEM, Lydia Frank, Payscale’s editorial director, tells Fast Company. While students who graduated with a degree in STEM certainly seemed to make more money than those in the humanities, the report indicates that the highest earners are able to combine their technical knowledge with other soft skills, like the ability to think critically and communicate well.

Big-Name Colleges Don’t Always Equal Big Bucks

This year, a little-known public college in New York State, SUNY Maritime College, topped the list of highest-earning graduates who did not go on to receive advanced degrees. Midcareer alumni from the college made a median salary of $134,000 a year, beating out Harvey Mudd College, Payscale’s top-ranked school for the past two years, by $1,000.

What stands out about both SUNY Maritime College and Harvey Mudd College is that they focus heavily on STEM fields, but they also expect their undergraduates to take courses in other subjects. At Harvey Mudd, students must take liberal arts coursework, while SUNY Maritime College has a mix of engineering and business programs. “Graduates from these schools have a leg up,” Frank says. “They are offered a very specialized range of majors that tend to lead to lucrative careers. These are well-rounded graduates with both soft and hard skills.”

In some ways, the college salary rankings say more about the kind of coursework that appeals to employers than the quality of the school overall. While many schools prepare graduates for highly lucrative careers, most offer a broader range of programs that lead to a wider variety of job opportunities, which could bring down the median midcareer alumni income. However, the ranking is instructive because it reveals that employers value graduates who bring highly technical skills to the workplace, but who also offer other qualities, like a knowledge of literature or business.

Gender Matters

This year, Payscale investigated how gender figures into its college salary rankings. It found that there are more male students at schools that lead to higher median incomes. This trend was consistent at four-year colleges as well as MBA, master’s, and PhD programs. “Considering that men dominate STEM fields, which tend to be important programs in the schools that top our list, it’s not terribly surprising that more male students are in those schools,” Frank says.

This gender imbalance speaks to the broader pipeline problem for women in STEM. “There are not enough young girls who are encouraged to go into STEM, and there are not enough women who are staying in STEM, even if that was the field they graduated in,” Frank says. The Payscale data show that the culture that turns women away from STEM eventually has a very tangible impact on women’s earning potential. The majority of them end up pursuing majors and attending colleges that don’t result in lucrative careers, while their male counterparts have the opposite experience.


If You’re Set On Humanities, Philosophy Is A Good Bet

Contrary to popular belief, a bachelor’s degree in philosophy is not totally worthless. In fact, it leads to the highest median midcareer salary of any humanities degree in the Payscale study: $85,000. While this is significantly less than STEM bachelor’s degree holders, it is nothing to scoff at. “Philosophy degree holders are particularly adept at analytical reasoning,” Frank says. “They come at critical thinking and problem solving in unique ways, which are the kind of soft skills that employers really embrace.”

Frank notes that for humanities graduates, the reputation of the school does play a role in lifetime earnings. Highest-paid humanities majors tend to come from prestigious colleges like Duke, Columbia, and U.C. Berkeley. In these cases, the social network that graduates at these colleges form can sometimes compensate for a degree that may not be that marketable on paper.

Still, given the high cost of going to a fancy private college, Frank says that these data should prompt high school students to think carefully about whether it is worth attending a school with a big brand name and a big price tag.

About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.