Even with rising tuition costs, college is still considered one of the best ways for young Americans to guarantee a higher lifetime income.
Yet that doesn't mean a college degree is a slam-dunk when it comes to ensuring a healthy paycheck. Given the larger chunks of debt that students are taking on to pay for those degrees, it's increasingly important for students and their families to consider more than a college's reputation and campus life, notes Lydia Frank, senior editorial director at Payscale, a compensation analysis company.
"Some Ivy League schools aren't as high up on the list as people would expect them to be," Frank noted. "The thing that's different is we aren't taking into account reputation or biases people may have about the schools. All we are looking at is financial outcomes."
Many of the colleges with the highest-paid graduates have a common theme: They focus on the so-called STEM fields, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
That jibes with Payscale's research into the majors that reward their students with the highest salaries, which list petroleum engineering, nuclear engineering and actuarial mathematics as the three top-earning majors, based on incomes of graduates with bachelor's degrees in those fields.
But what about finding a passion in life that isn't related to the STEM fields? That may be well and good, but humanities-related degrees don't necessarily correlate to higher pay in the real world. The highest-paid humanities major is philosophy, coming in at 75th in the rankings. The mid-career median annual pay for philosophy majors is $85,000, compared with $168,000 for petroleum engineers.
The majors with the lowest-paying outcomes for graduates are focused on social work, education and religion, with early childhood education ranking as the worst-paying degree for its grads, who can expect mid-career earnings of $38,000 annually.
"It's not a judgement; it's just data," Frank noted. "The truth of the labor market is that folks going into fields that are lower paid, such as education, social work, and religion" are often motivated by more than money.
Early childhood education majors may not be living high on the hog, but they do find other rewards, given that 77 percent say they find their work meaningful. (About 71 percent of petroleum engineers say their work is meaningful, however, which illustrates that it's possible to find work that's both consequential and remunerative.)
Women and minorities are underrepresented in STEM majors, which is borne out by Payscale's research. Many of the science-focused colleges, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have enrollment that's tipped toward men. Recent social media campaigns such as #ILookLikeAnEngineer are geared toward encouraging more women to consider STEM fields. Given the higher lifetime earnings potential for these fields, it's important for women to consider the majors and feel comfortable in those programs.
"We need to ensure that women have exposure to those fields early on and feel welcome in it," Frank said.
Several military academies make the top of the list, although Frank notes that the salary data is only for graduates working in the private sector, so the salaries don't include graduates enrolled in the armed forces.
Below are the list of the top 10 ranked colleges, with their graduates' mid-career median earnings in parenthesis.
1. SUNY - Maritime College ($139,000)
2. Massachusetts Institute of Technology ($137,000)
3. Harvey Mudd College ($134,000)
4. (Tie) Harvard University ($131,000)
4. (Tie) United States Naval Academy (USNA) at Annapolis ($131,000)
6. Stanford University ($130,000)
7. (Tie) Babson College ($128,000)
7. (Tie) Princeton University ($128,000)
9. (Tie) U.S. Merchant Marine Academy ($128,000)
10. United States Military Academy at West Point ($127,000)
Majors that pay you back, by highest mid-career median pay:
1. Petroleum engineering ($168,000)
2. Nuclear engineering ($121,000)
3. Actuarial mathematics ($119,000)
4. Chemical engineering ($118,000)
5. Electronics and communications engineering ($116,000)
6. Computer science and engineering ($115,000)
7. (Tie) Electrical & computer engineering ($114,000)
7. (Tie) Systems engineering ($114,000)
9. Aeronautical engineering ($113,000)
10. (Tie) Computer engineering ($109,000)
10. Mining engineering ($109,000)