The 50 institutions that offer the best starting salaries for 4-year degree holders

Private institutions lead the way, but some online schools, publics and for-profits prove just as competitive.
By: | June 9, 2022
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A student that walks out of Harvard with a degree in computer science will earn on average a little more than $140,000 to start. A political science major at Dartmouth will net around $57,000 in that first job. And a finance major at Georgetown will receive roughly $84,000.

More importantly, they will all rank in the 99th percentile against peers in those fields, according to the Salary Score metric developed by groundbreaking researchers at OnlineU, which provides a deep dive into data that matter most to students, and in turn, institutions of higher education.

The latest offering by the “anti-U.S. News & World Report” researchers from Optimal, not only gives discerning students a chance to survey the best of the best colleges and universities in terms of return on investment but also gives a window for those institutions to judge how well their programs are delivering well-paying positions as they enter the workforce.

The Ivys are doing quite well. Led by Harvard at No. 1, five of the prestigious institutions have cracked this year’s Top 10, including Dartmouth at No. 3, Yale at No. 4 and Penn at No. 7. Columbia (11), Princeton (16) and Cornell (23) also made it into the top 50. But scan past the expected mainstays like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at No. 2, and there are several surprises—including for-profits, online schools, and yes, state-funded institutions. For-profits beat out privates and publics overall on Salary Score, by 6.5 and 22.5 percentage points, respectively.

“This year’s rankings show that online colleges are continuing to make inroads against on-campus schools, offering competitive salary outcomes,“ Optimal CEO Sung Rhee said. “Additionally, we’ve found that some public schools showcase salary outcomes in line with those of Ivy League graduates.”


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While the list gleaned from information from the Department of Education’s College Scorecard does contain some publics, only two are in the Top 20: Thomas Edison State University in New Jersey at No. 14 and the University of California at Berkeley at No. 17. Private four-year institutions dominate the Top 10 and include Georgetown (5), Carnegie-Mellon (6), Santa Clara University (8), Boston College (9) and Stanford (10). And they also feature heavily in the rest of that top half: Bentley (12), Colgate (13), Williams (15), Barnard (18), Bucknell (19), the University of Chicago (20), the University of San Francisco (21), University of Notre Dame (22), Northeastern (24) and Lehigh (25).

Then, it gets interesting. At No. 26 is the low-cost for-profit American Public University System in West Virginia. Health and physical education majors can earn nearly $48,000 per year to start, among the top 1% in the nation, while its criminal justice majors are in the top 2% ($49,350). Its overall salary score, in fact, beat out both Brown and Northwestern. The private non-profit National University in California is next at No. 29, followed by online for-profit Capella University. Students who study criminal justice at National or business administration at Capella both earn in the top 1% of starting salaries nationally. And each of them nosed out Duke, Villanova, University of Southern California and Georgia Tech.

As for the best of the remaining publics, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (37), the online Colorado State University Global (40), the University of Minnesota at Crookston (44) and Cal State East Bay (49) offer great ROI for students just starting in their jobs.

Those names look quite a bit different from the U.S. News overall rankings, and that is the point, say leaders at Optimal. Adelphia University might not be competitive on teacher starting salaries, but it is in the top 1% in nursing ($91,000) and level in both business administration and communications. Its rating on OnlineU’s list is No. 39, while U.S. News has it at No. 172. Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey is 35th on this list but only 83rd on U.S. News. A look at specific programs at Stevens and it’s clear why its Optimal score is so high (top 1% in business administration and management and in the top 20% of starting salaries for computer science, biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering.

The biggest positive movers on this year’s list were Williams College, which jumped 19 spots to No. 15; Brown University, which rose 25 spots to No. 27; and Minnesota-Crookston, up 37 spots to No. 44. The ones that fell the most were two from the Northeast: Trinity College, which plummeted 24 spots, and the College of the Holy Cross, which dropped 14 spots.