Here's some free advice that will pay off for today's college freshmen: If you want to guarantee a good salary right after graduation, major in engineering.
You could take that advice, or you could read the voluminous rankings PayScale released today of which colleges have the highest salary for graduates in the workforce. PayScale adjusts the data to compensate for flaws, but still, the salary database is far from comprehensive; in some cases, the company has based the rankings on fewer than 100 self-reported salaries from self-selected graduates of colleges with thousands of alumni.
But, nationally, the salary data is the best we've got. And the rankings are interesting. Here are three things you can learn from the PayScale data — which are also three reasons why judging the value of a degree in the first five years out of college can be misguided.
1) Colleges with high-earning young alumni specialize in the STEM fields
The college that will make you the most money right away with just a bachelor's degree, according to PayScale, is Harvey Mudd College. Like most of its peers at the top of the list, it specializes in engineering, health sciences, or business; the sole college in the top 20 that doesn't is Stanford. It's your major, not your college, that makes the most difference.
Some of the colleges with top-earning young alumni aren't household names. Thomas Jefferson University, no. 13 is a private college in Pennsylvania with just 1,200 students. But PayScale says its alumni earn an average of $65,000 in their first years on the job — more than Harvard, which is all the way down at No. 47, with young graduates earning $57,600.
2) Colleges with high-earning young alumni are disproportionately male
Given that women make up 56 percent of all college students, it's noticeable how sparse they are at the colleges whose alumni earn the most right out of the gate. With a few exceptions — Loma Linda University and Thomas Jefferson University, both health-focused colleges — men are at least 55 percent of the student body of top colleges with the highest-earning young alumni.
Men are more likely to major in sciences and engineering, and so more likely to choose the colleges with high-earning alumni. But the gender wage gap shows up in ways both large and small throughout the data — in what men and women major in, what colleges they choose, and what fields they eventually work in. That means the salary information might tell us a little less about the difference a college makes, and a little more about who it enrolls. (Ben Schmidt, an associate professor of history at Northeastern University, wrote in depth about this here.)
3) Eventually, others catch up
PayScale doesn't just have data on bachelor's degree holders in their first few years out of school. It also includes salaries for graduates with at least 10 years' experience, and for people who went on to earn additional degrees — and once you take all those factors into account, the picture starts to look somewhat different:
Harvey Mudd hasn't been dethroned; graduates with at least 10 years' experience make $137,800 per year, PayScale says. But Stanford has crept up to No. 2. Washington and Lee University, a small private college in Virginia, makes a strong showing. Unsurprisingly, so do Yale, Harvard, and Princeton.
As for high-ranked Thomas Jefferson? Once future degrees and later earnings are taken into account, it's all the way down at no. 302.
If the lesson from the first chart is "major in engineering if you want to get rich quick," the lessons from this one are more disparate. Well-known, prestigious colleges show up high on the list. But so do colleges you probably have to Google. It's almost as if how much money you earn isn't the only way of judging the value of an education.
(One note: I've cut the US Naval Academy, West Point, and the Air Force Academy, which rank very high on both lists. PayScale's early career salary rankings include only the civilian workforce, not the military. All three colleges require graduates to serve in the military for five years, meaning most graduates aren't counted in the early-career salaries.)