The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Where to go to college if you want the highest starting salary

While Ivy League graduates celebrate their alma maters, proudly dangling their bachelors degree on resumes, coyly dropping where they went to school into conversation at job fairs, people who studied elsewhere are earning better salaries straight out of college.

The college graduates who earn the most money over the course of their first five years in the professional world tend to have earned their diploma at the United States Naval Academy, where the median degree-holder can expect to make some $82,900 per year. Second on the list are those who attended the United States Military Academy (also known as West Point), where the median early career salary is $82,800.

From there on, it's mostly engineering and other military schools. Harvey Mudd College, a small school in Southern California with a strong engineering program, is third at $78,800; Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is fourth, at $78,000; United States Merchant Marine Academy is fifth, at $77,900; and California Institute of Technology (Caltech) is sixth, at $77,000.

The data comes from a new report by PayScale, which collected salary data from nearly 1.5 million employees with degrees from over 1,000 different colleges. And it isn't kind to Ivy League schools.

Ivy League schools, in fact, are nowhere to be found. Not among the top 10, top 20, or even top 30. Harvard, which produces the highest earning early career graduates among Ivy League schools, ranks 31st on the list. There, students can expect to earn a median salary of $62,600 fresh out of school. Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania are tied at 32nd, where the number is $62,000. Cornell is 35th, at $61,900. Yale is 40th, at $61,400. Brown is tied for 42nd, at $60,800. And Dartmouth is 56th, at $58,000.

The chart below shows the top 20, where America's most prestigious division is notoriously missing.

The numbers, to be fair, shift considerably as people progress into their careers. Once college graduates have at least 10 years of experience in the workforce, those Ivy League school degrees begin to prove their worth. Harvard, where graduates with 10 plus years of experience earn a median salary of $131,000, jumps to fourth on the list. Princeton, where mid-career graduates earn a median salary of $128,000, is tied for seventh. Graduates from the University of Pennsylvania are 13th, at $124,000; and those of Yale are tied for 16th, at $120,000.

Graduates from Cornell and Brown, meanwhile, are tied for 30th, at $114,000. And those from Dartmouth are tied for 33rd, at $113,000.

The same engineering and military schools that graduates students who go on to earn hefty salaries at the start of their careers tend to help pad former students' pockets down the road. MIT and Harvey Mudd are second and third, respectively, on the list of mid-career salaries. The Naval Academy is tied for fourth. The Merchant Marine Academy is tied for seventh. And West Point is 10th.

To be clear, these are all gaudy numbers—early career salaries that soar above $70,000, later career ones that sit well into the six figure range. The median salary in the United States is just over $50,000, according to Census Bureau.

But the data are notable nonetheless.

Most military schools tend to require as many as five years of service post graduation. The strong performance of elite military schools on the list of early career earnings suggests that that military experience seems to increase graduates' value in the eyes of employers. Technical training, especially from top tier engineering schools, is similar in this regard. Indeed, engineering majors from a range of colleges are among the highest career earners, so it's only natural that schools known for their engineering programs graduate students who go on to earn sizable salaries. Especially in a world where an understanding of computers is increasingly essential.

Meanwhile, the ranking of Ivy League schools -- where admission rates are among the toughest in the country, but students are much less likely to graduate with science, technology, engineering, or math degrees -- is eye-opening, too. Partly, that's because liberal arts majors who graduated from elite schools, though they might not earn as much as their specialized counterparts up front, do seem to catch up later one, when their broader education proves its financial worth.

But Ivy League graduate pay is also interesting because last year it actually looked much worse comparatively. Fresh out of college, the best performing school, Princeton, ranked 34th. Next was The University of Pennsylvania, at 40th. Harvard, meanwhile, didn't crack the top 50, and Brown didn't make it into the top 70.

The salary jumps were similar for mid-career salaries. Harvard, the highest ranked Ivy last year, was only 14th on the list.

What's ushering them upwards, however, is unclear. The percentage of graduates from each school who earned a diploma in science, technology, engineering and math—which is a characteristic of many of the top ranked schools in PayScale's report—didn't budge over the past year. And the job market is better, which could be benefiting less specialized workers, but it's not better by much.

One possibility is that fewer Ivy League graduates are pursuing graduate degrees—at least immediately after earning their bachelors. Earning power is, of course, stunted up front when someone forgoes a paying job for the pursuit of a doctorate or law degree. And law school, at the very least, is much less popular than it once was.

Still, though they have risen in the ranks, the underwhelming showing of some of the nation's oldest, most elite schools on PayScale's list illuminates at least one lingering truth: Prestige and practicality don't always go hand in hand.