The real keys to success for college grads

When measuring job satisfaction and earnings, meaningful college experiences such as studying abroad, undergraduate research and internships, don't appear to matter as much as students' majors and the schools that they attend.

This is a key conclusion of a new study that questions conventional wisdom about what college activities matter after students graduate and start their careers.

While previous research has found a link between college graduates' majors and the selectivity of the schools they attended, it's been widely thought that so-called high-impact experiences increase a student's chances of eventual success in the working world.

Many studies have examined the relationship between a college degree and salaries, but far less is known about other college experiences that include undergraduate research, internships, studying abroad, community-based projects and senior capstone projects. Still, the Association of American Colleges & Universities made a big splash back in 2007 when it pronounced that these and other practices, which the organization called "high impact," cultivated the kinds of learning and development that students need for success in life.

However, the new study concludes that these high-impact experiences had a relatively small and inconsistent influence on career outcomes in the years right after college graduation.

"We had anticipated finding more consistent and stronger evidence that high-impact practices have a positive influence on earnings and other aspects of career success," said Gregory Wolniak, the study's co-author and director New York University's Center for Research on Higher Education Outcomes.

Consistent with past studies, the researchers found that graduating from a selective college or university, rather than one that accepted most or all applicants, substantially improved earnings in the years immediately following graduation. Young alumni from selective institutions reported earnings that on average were 16 percent to 18 percent higher.

The selectivity of the graduate's college, however, didn't affect graduates' attitudes toward their jobs. The researchers measured such things as graduates' job satisfaction and commitment, as well as whether they continued to learn and were challenged in their jobs.

The researchers found that the biggest impact on these attitudinal measures was the graduate's college major, which also significantly influenced early career earnings. Business majors reported earning comparable salaries to grads majoring in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, but they reported significantly lower levels of learning, satisfaction and challenges on the job. In general, students working in jobs closely related to their majors reported more than 15 percent higher earnings.

The study emphasized that the results shouldn't be used to question the importance of high-impact experiences in terms of student learning and development, but it cautions against suggestions that they'll translate into career gains.