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How Your College Choice Affects Your Career

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Computer science, engineering and business undergraduates not only have the highest employment rates, but also earn the most, averaging $60,000 upon graduation.

A NerdWallet study of college graduates’ employment, industries and salaries from more than 240 top-rated undergraduate programs found that those who obtain technical degrees and attend specialized schools enjoy high employment rates and salaries.

The study, which was conducted in conjunction with our college comparison launch, is a comprehensive analysis of more than 300,000 students from the classes of 2009 through 2011.

[Need help landing your first job? Check out our Job Search Guide for Gen Y.]

Key takeaways:

  • Only around half of students found employment right out of college.
  • Financial services, consulting, education/service, and information technology were among the most popular industries.
  • Graduates of specialized schools, such as engineering, nursing and business, were the most likely to find employment.
  • Engineering and business students earned the highest starting salaries.

The findings are explained in more detail below.

Salaries: Which schools and programs lead to the highest incomes?

Though different schools stand out in each major, when it comes to salary, it pays to have a big name. Students graduating from well-known, well-regarded private schools took home the largest paychecks:

  • The top 20 highest paid undergraduate programs averaged a starting salary of $61,424, compared with an average of just $43,700 for all programs in our study.
  • Public school grads earned just 80% of what private school grads earned: Public school seniors reported an average of $40,000 versus $50,000 for private universities and liberal arts colleges.
  • 63% of graduates who reported earning an average salary of $50,000+ graduated from private schools.
  • Graduates of Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science had the highest starting average salaries, which at $79,551 were a whopping 82% higher than the average for all programs in the study.
  • The highest reported salary was a graduate of Stanford University who self-reported a salary of $165,000.

Perhaps predictably, the majors most likely to lead to a job were also the most likely to offer a hefty paycheck. Once again, technology, business and engineering programs swept the field.

  • Computer science students achieved by far the highest average starting salary, topping the list at $65,820.
  • Engineering students earned an average of $56,487, a solid 29% better than the average for all programs in the study.
  • Business undergrads earned an average starting salary of $49,448; UPenn’s Wharton School and Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business topped the list with average starting salaries of $63,273 and $60,970, respectively (average of the classes of 2009-2011).

Post-graduation plans: Where do students go after graduation?

Across all colleges and universities in our study, only 50% reported employment of some form immediately after college, while others pursued a graduate degree (24%), traveled (7%) or volunteered (5%). Approximately 19% of students reported they were still seeking employment upon graduation.

Predictably, though, graduates of Ivy League colleges fared better. They were  more likely to find employment than the average graduate, and at 59%, boasted the highest employment rates overall. Additionally, liberal arts college grads were more likely to report traveling after graduation (7% of graduates at 10 liberal arts colleges reported traveling after graduation, compared with 5% overall), while public university graduates were twice as likely to volunteer as the average of all graduates in the study.

Employment: Which schools and programs are most successful at placing students?

Despite unsettling employment numbers, certain degrees and schools flourished. Specialty undergraduate programs, such as engineering and business programs within national universities, had the highest employment rates.

  • 18 of the top 20 schools with highest employment rates were specialized undergrad programs, including:
    • Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business
    • Auburn University’s College of Engineering
    • University of Pennsylvania’s School of Nursing
    • Pennsylvania State University’s College of Information Sciences and Technology
    • Other specialized undergraduate programs
  • The top 20 colleges with the highest reported employment averaged an employment rate of 84%, compared with the overall average rate of 50%.

Even within a school, students’ choice of major had a disproportionate impact on their future job placement.

  • Business students were most likely to have found employment, averaging 64%.
  • Engineering students had the second-highest employment rate at 54%.
  • Students of architecture and education programs seek to enter the workforce in high numbers, but actual employment opportunities are lacking. Of these architecture and education graduates, 31% and 27%, respectively, were still seeking employment at the time of our survey.

 Industry: What should students consider based on their desired field of study?

If a high school student is lucky enough to know what profession he or she wants to enter, certain types of schools stand out in different categories.

  • Teaching: Liberal arts colleges
    • Six of the top 10 schools in terms of the number of students who reported teaching after graduation were liberal arts colleges.
      • Wesleyan and Haverford top the list.
    • Teach For America hired undergraduates from 58% of the schools and programs in our study, topping a list otherwise dominated by consulting and financial services firms.
    • Teach For America was the top employer at many select schools, including Duke, Columbia and Georgetown universities.
  • Business and finance: Specialize early
    • Of the five schools whose graduates were most likely to find employment in business or finance, four offered specialty undergraduate business programs.
    • Goldman Sachs is the top employer for University of Pennsylvania’s undergrad business school (Wharton). In fact, Goldman hired 36 undergraduates each of the last three years from the University of Pennsylvania. Goldman was the second most common employer overall, after Teach For America, in our study of top ranked schools.
  • Community service: Barnard and WashU
    • Barnard College and Washington University in St. Louis graduates were the most likely to go into community service: 20% and 14%, respectively, reported employment at a nonprofit.
  • Law school: The Ivies or UMich
    • Five of the six schools from which more than 5% of students went on to pursue law degrees were private universities, including two Ivy League colleges.
    • However, the top honor in this category went to the public University of Michigan.

Notes on study methodology: Schools included in this study were those that had graduation reports and senior exit surveys available to the public online or upon request (such reports were administered by the universities to their students upon or shortly after graduation). Results include a total of 100+ parent institutions and 240+ undergraduate programs. 

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