Graduates of these U.S. colleges earn the most

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  • Your college major and alma mater can make a big difference in what you’ll earn in the job market.
  • The top five schools whose grads earn the highest mid-career pay don’t include any Ivy League schools — instead, they include STEM-focused colleges like Harvey Mudd and MIT, according to PayScale.
  • But college grads can make a good living even if they don’t major in STEM fields, the research firm found.

College may not pay off for all students, but those who pick their majors and alma maters wisely have a better chance of getting a return on their investment. 

That’s according to a new study from compensation-data firm PayScale, which analyzed salaries of graduates from thousands of colleges and universities across the U.S. The average cost of a private four-year college stands at almost $36,000, up 26% from a decade ago, according to The College Board. 

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The soaring cost of higher education has strained household budgets across the country and required millions of Americans to depend on loans, with total student debt now at a record $1.6 trillion, second only to mortgage debt. That’s prompting discussion about whether a college degree is really worth the cost, while some surveys shows that up to two-thirds of workers feel regret when it comes to their degrees

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Yet some colleges and majors offer better returns than others, PayScale found in its annual survey of salaries for college grads. Surprisingly, the top five schools associated with the highest annual salaries don’t include Ivy League colleges. Instead, they are institutions that focus on science, technology, engineering or math (or STEM), as well as military careers. 

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“If you look at a share of people in Ivy League schools, you do find that Ivy League schools have a higher share of liberal arts degrees,” where incomes tend to be lower than for STEM-related grads, said Sudarshan Sampath, director of research at PayScale. 

The top five schools whose grads have the highest median pay midway through their career:

  1. Harvey Mudd College, a STEM-focused college based in Claremont, California ($158,200)
  2. MIT, the Cambridge, Massachusetts STEM-focused university ($155,200)
  3. Samuel Merritt University, a health care-focused university in Oakland, California ($156,100)
  4. U.S. Naval Academy, based in Annapolis, Maryland ($152,800)
  5. California Institute of Technology, a STEM-based college in Pasadena, California ($151,600)

Harvard and Stanford take the 6th and 7th slots, the only Ivy League colleges in the top 10, Payscale noted. Military schools like the U.S. Naval Academy scored high because their grads, who are trained in leadership skills, are in-demand with private employers, Sampath noted.

By comparison, median household annual income is $61,400, according to U.S. Census data.

Flexible majors

Graduates who earned STEM degrees tend to earn higher annual salaries than other college grads because of the demand for engineers, data scientists and other employees with technical skills, PayScale noted. But earning a STEM degree isn’t the only way to make a good living, Sampath noted. 

For instance, political economy majors rank No. 5 in income, earning about $136,200 in annual mid-career pay, PayScale found. By comparison, the top-earning major is petroleum engineering, with annual mid-career pay of $176,900.

Political economy “is an example of a degree with a wide variety of outcomes,” with respondents indicating they were employed as engineers, CEOs and 3D modelers, he said. 

But other majors aren’t as flexible, and graduates may not be as lucky once they’re out in the job market. Education majors, for one, tend to earn lower pay, with early childhood education majors earning $43,000 at their mid-career levels, PayScale found. Because of years of eroding pay, teachers now suffer from a record pay gap when compared with other college-educated workers.

“If you look at education majors, they don’t have a lot of options,” Sampath said. “You not only have a degree that’s inflexible, but teaching isn’t paying well for a variety of reasons, and you don’t have that flexibility in your career options.”

Below are the top 20 colleges ranked by median mid-career pay. Mid-career is defined as employees with 20 years of experience.

  1. Harvey Mudd College ($158,200)
  2. Massachusetts Institute of Technology ($155,200)
  3. Samuel Merritt University ($156,100)
  4. U.S. Naval Academy ($152,800)
  5. California Institute of Technology ($151,600)
  6. Harvard University ($146,800)
  7. Stanford University ($145,200)
  8. Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Science ($144,800)
  9. U.S. Military Academy ($144,000)
  10. Webb Institute ($141,800)
  11. SUNY Maritime College ($140,700)
  12. U.S. Merchant Marine Academy ($140,700)
  13. Stevens Institute of Technology ($139,900)
  14. Colorado School of Mines ($139,600)
  15. Princeton University ($139,400)
  16. Yale University ($138,300)
  17. U.S. Air Force Academy ($138,100)
  18. Carnegie Mellon University ($136,100)
  19. Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology ($135,800)
  20. Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science ($135,700)
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