The No. 1 factor that determines salaries

Major is most influential, based on research to date

Colleges are facing more scrutiny than ever about the return on investment: are graduates' outcomes worth the money and time they spent on their degrees?

Salary outcomes can vary based on a wide variety of factors, according to Gregory Wolniak, the director of the Center on Higher Education Outcomes and a clinical associate professor of higher education at New York University. Wolniak recently spoke with The Atlantic's Mikhail Zinshteyn about the factors that have the greatest effect on college grads' salaries.


Wolniak argues this is the single biggest factor for determining graduates' salaries—according to him, it's even more important than deciding whether to attend college or not. He says graduates of certain majors can earn up to 50% more than their peers.

Quantitatively-based majors tend to result in the highest earnings, says Wolniak, especially when they closely align with specific occupations. On the other end of the spectrum, Wolniak says, education and humanities majors tend to earn the least. 

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The data on internships suggest they do give graduates a slight—4%—bump in earnings, Wolniak says, but he cautions that there hasn't been very much generalizable research on the topic.

He believes internships are mostly helpful for getting a job in the first place, but don't necessarily help a person earn more in the role.


"[Grades] matter about as much as internships," Wolniak argues. He cites literature showing that a one-point increase in GPA is associated with an average 5% to 6% bump in salary. But Wolniak cautions that this is another area where there hasn't been a lot of research. 

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Institution type:

Wolniak says this factor is of moderate importance—not quite as important as choice of major. He cites research showing that students who attend colleges ranked highly on Barron's Index tend to earn 13% to 20% more than their peers who attended colleges in the lowest categories.

However, Wolniak acknowledges that rankings of institutional quality, such as Barron's, tend to be "contentious."

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At least one study has shown that women earn up to $9,000 less than men immediately after graduating from college.

However, Wolniak argues that in spite of this pay gap, women get a higher earning premium from their degrees. That is, women get a bigger salary bump from having a degree than men do—up to 1.5 times bigger by some estimates, says Wolniak (Zinshteyn, The Atlantic, 1/24).

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