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.” 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.
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:
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. 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. 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.
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Here’s the code behind the data:
 Ebersole, John. “Why a College Degree?” Forbes. August 08, 2012. https://www.forbes.com/sites/johnebersole/2012/08/08/why-a-college-degree/#5318c425ed85.
 “Why You Can’t Catch Up.” The New York Times. January 19, 2018. Accessed April 22, 2018. https://mobile.nytimes.com/2014/08/03/education/edlife/why-you-cant-catch-up.html.
 David A. GarvinAlison Berkley WagonfeldLiz Kind. “Google’s Project Oxygen: Do Managers Matter?” Harvard Business Review. Accessed April 25, 2018. https://hbr.org/product/google-s-project-oxygen-do-managers-matter/313110-PDF-ENG.