Over the weekend, the Department of Education unveiled the most detailed cache of data ever on what students at individual colleges earn after they leave school. So of course the natural impulse—beyond checking one’s own alma mater, because who doesn’t like to wallow in shame for earning less than one’s classmates?—was to look at which institutions produce the richest grads.
The answer was pretty much what you’d expect. This list includes elite national universities and liberal arts colleges, engineering schools, and colleges that prep students for jobs in health care (including pre-med and nursing programs). But if the numbers tell us anything about the America’s fanciest schools, it’s that their alums probably make even more during their 20s than most of us assumed.
In recent years, we’ve largely relied on PayScale for information on what graduates from specific colleges earn. Unfortunately, the site’s figures are self-reported, which means they suffer from self-selection. Its annual survey on college salaries also only breaks out median earnings for grads, who it lumps into two categories: those with up to five years of work experience and those with more than 10. The Department of Education’s data is drawn directly from student loan and tax data, and is far more granular in some respects, showing the earnings for grads at the 10th, 25th, 50th, 75th, and 90th percentiles 10 years after they first enroll in school (assuming they graduate in four years, that’s about six years of work experience, or about age 28 for a traditional student). As a result, the figures give us a better sense of just how quickly Ivy Leaguers and their friends start getting rich.
For context, the Department of Education reports that at the median four-year college, the typical student earns $40,500 a year one decade after enrolling. How does that compare with the Ivy-plus crowd?
Well, at MIT, the median is a cool $91,600 (PayScale says the median for alums with 0 to 5 years of experience is $78,000, including individuals who went on to advanced degrees). At Harvard, it’s $87,000 (PayScale pegs it at $62,000 for those with 0-5 years of experience). At Brown, it’s a somewhat more modest $57,900 (which pretty much matches PayScale’s figure). At first, that doesn’t look so great, considering that the Department of Education finds almost 100 traditional four-year institutions for which the median post-collegiate salary is more than $60,000. But again, many of those are medical and engineering programs, whose grads are disproportionately entering high-pay fields.
Also, there’s a good reason to think the government’s figures actually low-ball how much students from these elite colleges are earning. The Department of Education’s dataset is entirely based on students who either borrowed student loans or received Pell grants, meaning they exclude wealthy undergrads whose parents are able to finance their education in cash, of which there are many in place like Cambridge, Massachusetts; New Haven, Connecticut; and Evanston, Illinois. In other words, we’re looking at some of the least privileged students at America’s top schools. The median family income among Harvard students in the government’s sample, for instance, is about $33,000, which is not exactly representative of the institution. Given that career earnings often track well with family background, there’s a good chance the government simply isn’t picking up a lot of the top earners coming out of the Ivy League and its peer institutions.
Still, they’re finding plenty of students at these schools making it rain. At the 90th percentile, salaries in this group of schools range between $160,000 and $250,000. At the 75th percentile, grads from 13 of these schools made six figures (Northwestern and Brown are the exceptions). The government’s data includes people who have graduate degrees—so these figures include MBAs and lawyers—but only includes individuals who are working and not enrolled in school, so current graduate students are excluded.
What about the lower end? At the 25th percentile, elite-college alums basically earn like the typical young bachelor’s degree in the U.S., earning from about $39,600 at Brown to $55,600 at MIT.
So there we go. Elite-college graduates in their 20s make bank—more than we even thought. Is that because they recruit some of the smartest kids in America, who would be successes wherever they went to college? Is it because they offer professional networks and opportunities that kids at your average state school could only dream of? Is it because they offer unparalleled educations? My guess it’s mostly A and B, with a little bit of instructional prowess stirred in. For the sake of completeness, here’s a table with salaries at each percentile. Gawk away.