College = Future?

At a time when graduates are struggling to find jobs and pay for their student loan debts, many begin to consider a college degree obsolete. With the dramatic increase in alternative degrees such as Make school and numerous examples of successful dropouts such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, teenagers now add ‘opting out of college’ as a feasible option. Although not going to college might sound as a plausible idea, a Forbes magazine article argues otherwise. According to John Ebersole, president of Excelsior College, “vocation national average salary for a cook is $28,570 … while the holder of a bachelor’s degree has an average salary of $45,000 … you can definitely shift the odds in your favor by obtaining a degree.”[1] Since it is established that obtaining a college degree yields a higher starting salary, this research paper hopes to uncover whether the college one obtains one’s degree from truly matters. To do so, we will be examining the starting and mid-career median salary of graduates with different degrees, graduates that attend colleges from different regions and graduates that attend different types of colleges.

A glimpse at the starting salary of fresh graduates, students who hold engineering, health occupation and science-related degrees top the list. With a starting median salary of $74,300, a fresh graduate with a degree in Physician Assistant rakes in around $30,000 more than the average starting salary of other bachelor degree holders. On the contrary, liberal art degree holders tend to have a lower starting median salary. Although employability cannot be measured by the median salary of degree holders, it can certainly be inferred that STEM majors are in higher demand and are more appreciated salary-wise. (Graph 1)

Despite having the highest starting median salary, the median salary of Physician Assistants exhibits little growth and falls behind other engineering degree holders. (Graph 2)

Some liberal art degrees such as Philosophy and Economics also exhibit a high percentage change in salary in spite of their relatively low median starting salary. In the long-term, however, the salary potential of engineering degree holders remains high as STEM majors dominate the mid-career median salary ranking.  Although Engineering degrees have a relatively low percentage change in median salary, the fact that they start high and end high infers a great advantage of Engineering degree holders in the job market. (Graph 3)

As much as the degree matters, the type of college one chooses to attend also affects the starting and mid-career median salary. Here’s a plot of the distribution of starting salary over different types of colleges: (Graph 4)


According to the plot, Ivy-league and Engineering college educated graduates receive a higher starting salary compared to its peers. The high starting salary of Engineering college graduates may have a correlation with the fact that STEM majors typically have a high starting salary. At the same time, the relatively lower starting salary of graduates from liberal arts colleges support the fact that liberal art degree holders typically receive lesser compensation than their STEM peers.

(Graph 5)

Reaching mid-career, the median salary of Ivy-league and Engineering college educated graduates remain strong, and the ranking of college types according to salary remains the same. Since Ivy-league graduates typically have a variety of degrees, the high starting salary may correlate more with the brand name of the school than the degree itself. This finding leaves us to question the validity of the conclusion drawn regarding STEM majors in the graphs 1-3.

Finally, we also have to put the location of the college into perspective. Here’s a plot of the distribution of starting salary over colleges in different regions:

(Graph 6)


According to the plot, college graduates from California and Northeastern regions obtain a relatively higher compensation compared to its peers. Due to the relatively larger tech scene in California, the high starting salary of college graduates from California may correlate with the fact that most college graduates in the region pursue STEM related fields. At the same time, the fact that all Ivy league colleges are in the Northeastern region explains the higher starting median salary. (Graph 7)

The trend of higher median salary in California and Northeastern regions also carry on into the mid-career of the graduates. The finding further supports the conclusion drawn up from Graph 5: graduates from either ivy league or engineering colleges (STEM related fields) have a higher median salary in general.


In conclusion, STEM degrees from ivy league and engineering schools in California or the northeast have the best long-term salary potential. While a high median salary is desirable, it isn’t always a suitable factor to measure success. Although there are articles such as the NYT article that examine data like this research and conclude that graduates from lower tier college have far lower chances to get into grad school and have far lower earning potentials, the findings should be taken with a grain of salt.[2] Like this research paper, the NYT article attempts to generalize the population of students that attend a certain tier of school. That results in a gross oversimplification of the numerous factors that influence a person’s success. By generalizing the chances of success of students going to different types of schools, we are overlooking the starting economic standing of students and the potential of the students themselves. Another flaw of this research paper that needs to be pointed out is the fact that we only used the median salary of graduates. At almost every situation, there are outliers that topple the scale. Take Project Oxygen, a Google research, for example: Contrary to common perception and the data analysis of salaries that people with strong STEM skills would be more valuable in the workspace than people with soft skills, the removal of “soft-skill” managers wreaked havoc in the workspace.[3] The results of Project Oxygen led Google to hire more managers and put more emphasis on soft-skills. The takeaway was that one’s salary isn’t necessarily determined by the major and the college they attend, but also by the skills they accumulate over the years. A business major has a great potential to be more valued and receive a higher salary than a computer science major as long as they demonstrate the necessary “people skills”. Ultimately, success is dependent on one’s ability, not where one attended college, what they earn, or what they studied during their 4 years.


Side Note: Please fill in a survey if this paper influenced your opinion on colleges… Even if it didn’t, please take the time to fill this in. Thanks!


Here’s the code behind the data:


[1] Ebersole, John. “Why a College Degree?” Forbes. August 08, 2012.


[2] “Why You Can’t Catch Up.” The New York Times. January 19, 2018. Accessed April 22, 2018.


[3] David A. GarvinAlison Berkley WagonfeldLiz Kind. “Google’s Project Oxygen: Do Managers Matter?” Harvard Business Review. Accessed April 25, 2018.


Share this project
  1. April 28, 2018 by Edward.Rees

    I think this is a really powerful article. Today, there are so many options as to what people can earn an income from, however, going to college helps a lot. I think it was also important to point out the necessity of soft skills or people skills. As explained in this article well and in the book, “Thank you for being late”, the people who will thrive best in the workplace are those with both the knowledge of the subject and knowledge of how to work with other people. I think this is important for many High School students to read as society is now pointing towards the idea that it’s okay to not attend University when one can fully afford it.

  2. April 28, 2018 by Nakul.Bajaj

    I think that stress over college acceptances and getting into a great school has become a recent problem that needs to be addressed. I find that your paper is awesome at reflecting that salaries are not tied to university selectivity, or anything of the like, but rather by profession and valued skills.

  3. April 28, 2018 by Margaret.Collett

    I think your project was informative and great! I have just gone through the college process myself, and after receiving rejection and acceptance letters it was a rough process. I think this is a topic that should be talked about more and it is difficult for most people to find a well paying job if they could not afford to go to college.

  4. April 29, 2018 by Ananth J Josyula

    Thank you so much for this article. It really helped me console myself by reinforcing my belief that college does not have a wholesome impact on your future. On the other hand, I believe that college is a merely a social experience, one that assists an individual in bettering their personal skills.

  5. April 29, 2018 by Esther Bedoyan

    Since I’m going into Electrical and Computer Engineering, it’s really cool to see the breakdown of starting median salaries. You did a really nice job with the graphs!

  6. April 29, 2018 by Naoya.Okamoto

    I really enjoyed your article and appreciatw how well-thought out it was!

  7. April 29, 2018 by Jimmy Chen

    Very detailed analysis and interesting to us. Graphs are informative to any reader.

  8. April 29, 2018 by Justin.Chen

    The graphics on your article are extremely helpful for understanding your points. It is a great article that has clearly been the result of much hard work.

  9. April 29, 2018 by Melle.Koper

    As a Junior this article really forces me to remind myself that college is not everything, great article!

  10. April 29, 2018 by Huy Tran

    A great article with thorough data analysis. I had to reflect on my college decision after reading this.

  11. April 30, 2018 by Cole.Biafore

    This is actually a really interesting article to read and its extremely useful for most high school students and even some college students maybe having difficulty in selecting a major. As a student getting ready to attend Georgia Tech and trying to decide between Aerospace Engineering, Chemical Engineering, and Computer Science, this article helped visually show the difference between those majors in terms of salary. I really appreciated this article!

  12. April 30, 2018 by BBracker

    Indeed, I agree completely that one’s personal qualities are often most important in determining one’s success (be it a salary or something else). In fact, one viewpoint I found worth looking into attributes a lot of top tier colleges’ graduates’ success to the fact that such colleges only admit high-octane people in the first place.

  13. April 30, 2018 by Audrey.Acken

    Very interesting article, especially because many of us are currently in high school and thinking about colleges. The visuals are also really helpful in telling the story. Overall, great job!

  14. April 30, 2018 by Kayla Adams

    I really loved this because as a senior graduating from high school in 21 days and going on to college as a Biochem major in order to be a physician’s assistant, a lot of thought went into whether or not I should go to college after high school. It’s a huge financial burden that I know that I’ll have to take on myself because my parents are getting old and are approaching retirement age, and my sister is preparing to go to med school. However, when I see statistics like the ones that you’ve provided, it solidifies my choice in going to college because, in today’s economy, employers want nothing but the best working for them. In addition, the cost of living is constantly on the rise and there are about to be less and fewer tax breaks for single individuals with low income in the upcoming future. It’s a lot to think about at such a young age, especially when it comes to what you want to do in the future. I’m lucky that I have a passion for STEM, however for some of my friends who want to pursue music and theater, I worry for them finding a job in the future and being able to survive off the salary that they will make if they do find one. People always say to follow your dream but it’s always scary to think about whether or not that dream can put food on the table in the future. However, tangent aside, I really enjoyed your presentation and amazing job in explaining your data and making it really easy to follow!

  15. May 04, 2018 by Ben.Arriola

    I just finished my college process, so this is very interesting to me. I ended up choosing a small liberal arts school because I believe the skills and teaching style are better suited for my interests, but I think this project would be very helpful for people to see when they begin the process. I also think its very important to remind young people that only a select few people can find financial stability without going to college. Its certainly possible, I know many people who have chosen not to go to college to pursue other opportunities, but this is the exception, not the rule.
    I really appreciated how you broke down very complex number and statistics. The graphs were very helpful and your presentation was very clear. Great job!

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