The cushiest early-career salaries don't come from the colleges you might expect. (Butch Dill/AP Photo)

If starting salaries were the sole measure of elite universities, U.S. News's most recent college rankings would look very different.

Princeton, Harvard, Yale, and Columbia, the country's top four universities by U.S. News's measure, for one, wouldn't crack the top 10, or 20, or even 30. And the University of Chicago, which tied for fourth place, wouldn't even make it into the top 200.

The top of the list would instead be reserved for elite military and tech schools, which send graduates out into the workforce with some of the country's highest early-career salaries, according to a new report by PayScale, which collected salary data from nearly 1.5 million employees with degrees from over 1,000 different colleges.

Graduates of the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis earn a median annual salary of more than $80,000 over their first five years, the most of any school included in PayScale's report; graduates of Harvey Mudd, a liberal arts college that specializes in mathematics and the physical sciences, earn just under $76,000, the second most; graduates of the United States Military Academy at West Point, earn just over $75,000, the third most; graduates of the California Institute of Technology earn just under $75,000, the fourth most; and graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology earn just over $70,000, the fifth most.


Notice that nowhere to be found are any of the country's prestigious Ivy League schools (because not a single one made the top 25).

Princeton, the best performing of the otherwise elite group, offers its graduates a median starting salary of $60,000, which is good enough to make it the 34th highest in the country; the University of Pennsylvania, the second-best performing Ivy, leads to a median starting salary of $59,300, the 40th highest; Columbia, at $59,200, is 41st; Yale, at $58,500 is 47th; Cornell, at $58,200, is 50th; Harvard, at $57,700, is 53rd; Dartmouth, at $55,500, is 69th; and Brown, at $55,100, is 75th.

Where the nation's more traditional top colleges appear to pay off is in the longer run. A look at median mid-career salaries (those for graduates at least 10 years out of college) tells a fairly different story. Elite liberal arts graduates don't merely tend to see a healthy bump in salary after a decade in the work force—they tend to see the most significant bumps, period.

While many of the military and tech schools that led to high starting salaries also appear to pave the way for hefty later-career earnings, several Ivy League schools and other smaller liberal arts institutions that didn't make it into the first list manage to crack the second. Five of the eight Ivy League schools—Harvard, Yale, Brown, Princeton, and the University of Pennsylvania—are among the top 25 schools in terms of mid-career median salaries. And Colgate, Tufts, Rice, and Carleton, none of which were among the top schools by starting salary, also made the cut.


Where many of the nation's traditionally elite schools really distinguish themselves is in actual, dollar-denominated, salary growth between graduates' early and mid-careers. Graduates from several of the country's top liberal arts institution's, Ivy League or otherwise, see their pay jump substantially from their first years out of school to when they're more than 10 years out.

No school's alumni experience a greater median pay increase than those of Haverford College, which see a more than a $76,000 increase over that period. Meanwhile, graduates of Carleton College, which tend to experience an increase of roughly $74,000, see the second greatest growth, and alumni of Harvard and Brown, which see median increases of just over and just under $60,000, respectively, are seventh and 10th.


While the reasons for the disparities between early and mid-year career pay for U.S. graduates are a bit unclear, it's easy enough to draw a few conclusions. For one, it appears that technical abilities are highly valued among recent graduates, which explains why a student who graduates from an engineering program at California Institute of Technology will likely be better compensated, at least up front, than a Harvard graduate with an English degree. It also seems that those specialized skills offer a comparative salary edge for only a handful of years before that advantage begins to dissipate--and the salary benefits of a holistic, liberal arts education begin to catch up.