Americans are suckers for a good ranking. Give people a copy of the annual U.S. News & World Report on the country's best colleges and you'll have them gloating, sulking and arguing over the results for hours. Ditto for the various lists put out by the Princeton Review. (Should Penn State really be this year's top-ranked party school? What happened, University of Florida?)
But for all the college rankings floating around, there's still one area students and parents can't find much concrete info about: how much an undergraduate degree will pay off. Enter PayScale.com, which claims to be the world's largest salary survey. Its 2009 College Salary Report uses data supplied by 1.2 million visitors who went to the site and plugged in all sorts of info to find out whether their salary was in line with those of people doing the same kind of work in their geographic area.
When the list is sorted by school, Dartmouth College alums lead the PayScale pack, with a median midcareer salary of $129,000. (The site defines midcareer as having a minimum of 10 years' experience.) Not far behind are the alumni of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University and Harvey Mudd College (a small school with a big engineering program). On the other end of the 600-school spectrum: South Dakota's Black Hills State University, whose midcareer graduates reportedly earn $42,000 a year.
PayScale's college ranking, in its second year, is drawing fire for its methodology. Median salaries for smaller institutions like Black Hills can be based on as few as 100 people. And the salaries are not adjusted for factors like cost of living. Another problem with the ranking is that it excludes anyone with a graduate degree. As a result, a huge portion of alumni can be left out; a recent Dartmouth survey of its 2008 grads found that 80% of them were either attending graduate school or planning to apply in the next five years.
Al Lee, director of quantitative analysis for PayScale, defends the exclusion. He doesn't think it's fair, for example, to credit his undergraduate institution (Swarthmore College) for the salary premium he gets for having a Ph.D. from Yale University.
And he may be right about that. But what is this ranking really saying about higher education? That every student's goal should be to make as much money as possible, betterment of the world be damned? As Bruce Breimer, former director of college guidance at New York City's prestigious Collegiate School, says, "This is only one way to judge success."