When you think of how much a college education costs students and their parents, do you ever think about which colleges produce the highest-earning graduates? The fact is that, after buying a home, your college education is the next biggest single investment you will make during your lifetime. So don’t you think your return on that investment should matter? Here's what you need to know.

Assessing the Colleges with the Highest-Earning Graduates

This assessment looks at bachelor’s-degree–awarding U.S. schools based on 10-year salary information from the U.S. Dept. of Education's College Scorecard. It does not include special-focus institutions, such as the Juilliard School (a conservatory for the performing arts). As other factors – including tuition costs, your likelihood of acceptance and the overall difficulty of the academic course of study – all matter, they are included as well. (For more, see Are U.S. Colleges Still a Good Investment?)


Earnings cited reflect median earnings (for federally aided students) 10 years after enrolling. They range from $69,000 per year for graduates of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy to $95,500 for Harvard grads. Digging a little deeper, your 10-year median earnings of $95,500 as a Harvard grad would be more than one-and-a-half times the $56,272 cost of your undergraduate education at that school. Even more impressive is the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, where your $22,152 four-year investment would be returned to you almost 15 times over on the 10-year anniversary after enrollment.


If the cost numbers on the chart below seem low, it's because the U.S. Department of Education’s definition of cost refers to the net price paid annually by federal aid recipients after all aid is subtracted. For public schools the figure reflects average cost for in-state students. At $5,538 per year, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy is the least expensive school on the list. The most expensive, at $20,861 per year, is the Maine Maritime Academy. (For more, see The Best Colleges for Financial Aid.)


Collegesimply.com provided the acceptance numbers. The likelihood you will be accepted for enrollment is a helpful indicator, especially if your academic record and ACT and/or SAT scores are less than stellar. For example, number three, Stanford, with 10-year median earnings of $86,000, is also the most difficult to get into, with a mere 5% acceptance rate. At the other end of the scale is the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, with a 74% acceptance rate. Of course, your expected 10-year median salary would be $17,000 less, at $69,000. 


The idea of a nearly six-figure salary 10 years after starting classes at Harvard may sound attractive, but you only receive those earnings if you graduate, which means you have to do well academically. Harvard is one of 19 schools in the top 27 for earnings where academics are rated “very hard,” according to Collegesimply.com data. If your academic credentials are more mainstream, you might want to consider instead the Maine Maritime Academy, which has respectable 10-year median earnings of $78,800 and, more important, an academic program rated “average.”

The Bottom Line

Choosing a college or university based on earnings alone obviously makes no sense. By taking cost, your likelihood of being accepted and the academic rigor of the institution into consideration, you will have a much better picture of whether a given school is a good fit for you.

Location, class size and available majors also factor in. After all, that $5,538 per year cost to attend the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy may sound good, but it won’t matter if you have no interest in any of the three programs of study offered: Marine Science/Merchant Marine Officer, Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering and Systems Engineering. Harvard, by comparison, the top school for 10-year median earnings, has 49 undergrad degree programs spread over numerous courses of study.  For more, see 8 College Degrees with the Best Returns on Investment.