Frank Insights: The colleges to consider for higher salary and better ROI

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Sometimes choosing where you go to college comes down to more than just location and academics. If you’re factoring your potential payday into your decision, PayScale’s recent College Salary Report for the 2019-20 school year is designed to help you decide. 

PayScale’s report breaks down the top-performing colleges by providing estimates of early and mid-career pay for over 4,000 institutions throughout the United States. The report uses a comprehensive database collected from over 3.5 million alumni. 

Most aspects of this report are par for the course, with a few surprises sprinkled in. But one thing we noticed was missing from the data was how location plays a part in the salaries listed.

As we looked through the list, we noticed that the geographical locations of the schools themselves are in urban communities where the cost of living is higher. So, of course, the salary potential is as well.

For students considering an education, but not able to travel out of state for school, this list won’t be all that helpful. Not unless, of course, you’re a student willing to take on the investment of a move, student loans, and higher cost of education to get to a salary that may or may not pay off your debt in the end.

But before we dive into return on investment, let’s take a look at the schools boasting the highest salaries. 

For High Paying Bachelor Degree Programs, You’ll Have to Move to The Coast

The top of the list for bachelor’s degree providing institutions is Harvey Mudd College, a private college that grants degrees in science and engineering. Not surprisingly, these technical schools with hyper-focused academics tend to dominate the top five list. Outside of technical schools, you’ll find the usual Ivy League universities as well. 

While Harvey Mudd isn’t your typical brand name school, it does fall into the technical colleges that predictably, students would garner a higher salary from. What’s also predictable about the school is its location. 

Like most of the top five, Harvey Mudd is in an urban area just outside of Los Angeles. Almost every University on the list is in an area where the cost of living and the median salary is higher than average.

For example, MIT is in Boston, Samuel Merrit just outside of San Francisco, and the California Institute of Technology, which again, is in California.

This doesn’t help students who can’t or won’t travel outside of the state for school. Nor does it help students that move for their education, but return to smaller cities or suburban locations after college.

Highest Paying Bachelor Degrees

Take a look at the top five highest-paying bachelor degrees below:

  1. Harvey Mudd College – $158,200 Annually 
  2. Massachusetts Institute of Technology – $155,200 Annually
  3. Samuel Merritt University – $154,100 Annually 
  4. United States Naval Academy – $152,800 Annually 
  5. California Institute of Technology – $151,600 Annually 

If you’re interested in checking out the rest of the list, you can see it here

Your Associate’s Degree Goes Further in Urban Environments

When it comes to associate degree programs, the highest paying opportunities are in the healthcare and nursing fields. For associates programs, the highest paying college is Helene Fuld College of Nursing, which offers Bachelor of Science degrees, as well as Registered Nurse associate programs. 

Just like with the Bachelor’s degrees, the top-performing associate degree programs all have one thing in common: they’re in sprawling urban areas.

Since most of these are medical degrees, where certifications are different from state to state, it’s unlikely that someone in Kansas looking to go to nursing school will consider moving to New York City to go to Helen Fuld.

The opportunity to attend one of these schools for an associates degree, when you don’t already live in the area, serves as something of a roadblock to being able to achieve the salaries listed on the report. 

Comparatively, that nursing student who studies in Kansas will make around $61k annually, but will likely have spent much less on her education. So, do the benefits really outweigh the costs?

Highest Paying Associate Degrees (1)

Here’s a glimpse of the top 5 highest-paying associates degrees: 

  1. Helene Fuld College of Nursing – $90,600 Annually
  2. Pacific Union College – $90,400 Annually
  3. Laboure College – $85,400 Annually
  4. Phillips School of Nursing at Mount Sinai Beth Israel – $82,800 Annually
  5. Lawrence Memorial Hospital School of Nursing – $80,900 Annually 

To see the full list of associate degree programs, click here.

These Degrees Pay High — In Certain Areas

PayScale didn’t stop there. The report also provides some insight as to which majors are most likely to “pay you back.” We pulled the top five from the PayScale report and discovered another geographical issue with these degrees.

Most of the degrees that offer higher paying salaries require you to live in coastal or large urban areas.

For instance, we compared three different locations for the number one Bachelor’s Degree, Petroleum Engineering. 

  • Texas Average Annual Salary: $124,152
  • Georgia Average Annual Salary: $105, 934
  • Florida Average Annual Salary: $81,840

There’s a pretty significant difference between what you can make as a Petroleum Engineer in Florida compared to Texas (about $43k). And even Georgia drops off quite a bit, showcasing that the average salary these degrees suggest is mostly dependent on where you end up after college. 

Top 5 Bachelor’s Degrees

  1. Petroleum Engineering
  2. Electrical Engineering & Computer Science (EECS)
  3. Applied Economics and Management
  4. Operations Research
  5. Political Economy

Top 5 Associate Degrees

  1. Physician Assistant Studies
  2. Radiation Therapy
  3. Software Engineering
  4. Project Management
  5. Computer Science (CS) & Engineering

For a look at the full list, click here

What Should You Really Look For?

After taking a look at the data, and diving into our pool of student information, we came up with a list of schools the financially savvy college student should consider. These colleges are in areas that make a lot more sense, given the general demographics of the U.S. 

The PayScale data shows that there are some particular schools, and some specific majors, that better your chances of financial success. However, a quick look at who tops the list shows incredibly selective schools with high tuition costs* — not everyone can get into, or pay, for a Harvey Mudd, MIT, or Caltech. 

FRANK ran our own numbers based on the Payscale data and found schools that are much more accessible, in locations that have a lower cost of living, and put their students in a better financial position after graduation for a fraction of the cost. 

Frank ROI and Highest Paying Colleges


These are our best value schools*

University In-State Tuition Out-State Tuition Early -Career Pay Mid-Career Pay Acceptance Rate
Brigham Young University- Provo $5,300 $5,300 $59,200 $108,000 51.18%
Colorado School of Mines $17,842 $36,172 $75,600 $139,600 40.35%
Georgia Institute of Technology-Main Campus $12,212 $32,404 $72,700 $133,400 25.77%
Stevens Institute of Technology $48,838 $48,838 $75,100 $139,900 39.11%
Binghamton University $9,271 $24,351 $61,300 $109,600 40.62%

*Though some may have relatively high tuition rates, their high acceptance rates, and career pay make them the most accessible schools on our list.

Is This How I Should Choose A College?

Salary doesn’t always have to factor in why you decide to go to a specific school or major in a certain subject, but it can have an impact on your financial wellbeing. However, chasing after schools because of their potential to generate a higher salary needs a little more investigating than merely looking at PayScales data. 

Given that the average student loan debt in the U.S. is around $30k, it makes sense that your future salary is a consideration in your decision. But keep in mind where you might be living after college. If you know you want to live where your salary potential is higher, that’s great! If you’re going to stick to a smaller city or suburban area, understand your salary potential could be lower.

So many students are walking into the real world saddled with student loan debt that feels crippling. Whether you’re returning to school to better your life, considering your options for the first time, or a parent hoping to guide your child in the right direction — knowing which colleges and majors have the potential for better pay can be a huge help. 

Whatever decision you end up making, it has to be the right one for you. Hopefully, this study arms you with some additional information to help you make the right choice. 

*Estimates are not reflective of net cost tuition after financial aid