Graduates From These Colleges Earn More Than Anyone Else

A new ranking system from the Brookings Institution assesses the economic boost of attending certain schools.

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Sophie Quinton
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Sophie Quinton
April 29, 2015, 6:43 a.m.

A bach­el­or’s de­gree from the Cali­for­nia In­sti­tute of Tech­no­logy will do more to max­im­ize your mid­ca­reer earn­ings than a bach­el­or’s de­gree from any­where else. A de­gree from Worcester Poly­tech­nic is the best way to enter a high-pay­ing field. Want to pay off your stu­dent loans fast? Try Brigham Young Uni­versity.

A new re­port from the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion tries to quanti­fy the boost in earn­ings gradu­ates gain from their alma ma­ters. Re­search­ers didn’t cre­ate a single rank­ing—sorry, rank­ings fans—but rather ex­plored three ways to as­sess the value of a de­gree.

As a col­lege de­gree has be­come more es­sen­tial and more ex­pens­ive, there has been an ex­plo­sion of rank­ings that fo­cus on how stu­dents fare after they gradu­ate. Even the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is look­ing to eval­u­ate col­leges based on factors like gradu­ation rate, av­er­age level of stu­dent debt, and post­gradu­ate earn­ings.

(RE­LATED: Could Vo­ca­tion­al Edu­ca­tion Be the An­swer to Fail­ing High Schools?)

Right now, most pop­u­lar rank­ings—like U.S. News and World Re­port‘s “Best Col­leges”—don’t ad­just to ac­count for stu­dent char­ac­ter­ist­ics. “That really bi­ases the res­ults,” says Jonath­an Roth­well, a fel­low at the Met­ro­pol­it­an Policy Pro­gram at Brook­ings and a lead au­thor of the re­port.

Roth­well and his coau­thor, Siddharth Kulkarni, pre­dicted the eco­nom­ic out­comes of gradu­ates—based on stu­dent char­ac­ter­ist­ics, like SAT scores, and col­lege char­ac­ter­ist­ics, like dis­tin­guish­ing between two and four-year schools—and com­pared those pre­dic­tions with ac­tu­al out­come data. “The dif­fer­ence between the two is what we’re call­ing value-ad­ded,” Roth­well says.

There’s no single data­base that lists the earn­ings of all gradu­ates from all col­leges and uni­versit­ies. So the re­search­ers cre­ated three dif­fer­ent lists, us­ing three dif­fer­ent kinds of out­come data. An in­ter­act­ive set of res­ults is avail­able on­line

(RE­LATED: The Dis­pro­por­tion­ate Bur­den of Stu­dent-Loan Debt on Minor­it­ies)

First, they looked at the gap between mid­ca­reer salar­ies, us­ing self-re­por­ted data col­lec­ted by Pay­Scale.com. Second, they looked at the rate at which gradu­ates paid off stu­dent loans, us­ing fed­er­al data. And third, they looked at the av­er­age salary of the oc­cu­pa­tions that gradu­ates tend to pur­sue, us­ing Linked­In and fed­er­al data.

They found that the single most power­ful factor in boost­ing earn­ings was a col­lege’s cur­riculum. Oth­er im­port­ant factors were a school’s gradu­ation rate and re­ten­tion rate, and the money it in­vests in fac­ulty salar­ies and in­sti­tu­tion­al schol­ar­ships. In­ter­est­ingly, tu­ition prices didn’t seem to af­fect stu­dent out­comes.

Cal Tech’s po­s­i­tion at the top of the mid­ca­reer earn­ings rank­ing isn’t sur­pris­ing: The uni­versity pre­pares stu­dents for highly skilled jobs in tech­no­logy. But some schools seem to be­stow an earn­ings boost that’s harder to ex­plain.

Col­gate Uni­versity, for ex­ample, landed at No. 2 on that list. It’s a lib­er­al-arts school. “You can’t really point to any­thing in the cur­riculum” that ex­plains the high earn­ings of those gradu­ates, Roth­well says. Something’s go­ing on at Col­gate that the re­search­ers couldn’t quanti­fy. It might have really great teach­ers, or great ca­reer-coun­sel­ing, or it might have a really strong alumni ca­reer net­work.

Next Amer­ica’s Edu­ca­tion cov­er­age is made pos­sible in part by a grant from the New Ven­ture Fund.

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