But that, of course, doesn't mean you shouldn't apply to Harvard. (Even if you could get the same education for $1.50 of late charges at the public library). First off, peak earnings matter more than immediate ones. And second, there are big different things going on with these numbers. Engineers, you see, tend to make more money, so a school full of them will too. But that doesn't mean it's the best school for engineers. Just that it has a lot of them, and nothing else.
So what we really want to see is which schools have the highest earnings for which majors later on in life. And we can figure that out by looking at Payscale's numbers. They have self-reported earnings for grads from over 1,000 schools, which admittedly has its limitations—I doubt MIT grads are outside the top ten highest paid for computer science—but it's the best we've got. And if we break it down this way, it turns out that Harvey Mudd isn't really the best school for engineers. Rice is. You can see that in the chart below, which looks at the top ten engineering programs in the country based on their grads' mid-career earnings.
I added one last wrinkle. The dark blue bars show the schools that have top 10 programs, based on future earnings, for more than one of the most lucrative majors. After all, it's hard enough for a 22-year old to have an inkling of what they want to do with their lives, let alone an 18-year old. That why, unless you're precociously self-assured, you want to go to a school that keeps your options open — which is where the Harvard, Stanfords, and Berkeleys of the world distinguish themselves.
Here, for example, are the best-paid computer science programs. And there's Berkeley again. (These, remember, show median salaries, so the Mark Zuckerbergs and Kevin Systroms don't pull their schools' numbers up).
Or we could look at social science majors — i.e., economics — and see that, once again, Stanford alums end up making more than any others.
As for everybody who tells you that majoring in the humanities is career suicide? Well, that's certainly not true for Harvard grads, who end up earning as much as any other kind of major anywhere else. (That's what happens when History majors all end up working on Wall Street or as corporate lawyers). But, as you can see, Berkeley, Northwestern, California-Irvine, and even Cal Poly alums all do well themselves — just like in their other majors.
The lesson, then, is to beware college rankers bearing school-wide earnings numbers. If you know, really know, what you want to study, then you should apply to the schools that have the best (and best-remunerated) programs in that area. But if you don't, you're probably better off applying to, yes, a liberal arts college that offers you a lot of great classes in a lot of different subjects. And those aren't just the Ivy-plus schools. The whole University of California system is exemplary, as are other public schools like the University of Virginia, just to name a few.
So sorry Harvey Mudd, but your grads aren't really the best-off. The boring truth is it depends on what you want to study, and how much it costs to study that at a particular school. Although a nice quad never hurts.