One reason why you might want to attend an Ivy League college or similar college is to earn a higher income. As a parent, you hope your child attending an elite university will make them upwardly mobile. A better life is what every parent wants for their kids.
However, the median income earned by Ivy League graduates from U Penn, Princeton, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Yale, and Brown is unimpressive in the beginning. For schools with single-digit acceptance rates, you'd think the median income earned would be much higher. Ivy League colleges are consistently ranked in the top 20 out of almost 4,000 colleges in America.
Before you find out how much the median income figure ten years after starting school is, take a guess at what it might be. $100,000? $150,000? $200,000? $250,000+?
Median Income Earned By Ivy League Graduates
According to the Department of Education Scorecard, former Ivy League attendees who received federal aid earn a median of about $90,500 a decade after starting school.
The Scorecard is data used to help prospective students and their parents make more informed decisions about where to attend college.
Does $90,500 sound like an impressive income to you as a 28-32-year-old top university graduate? It's OK, but it's not blowing my socks off.
If you are to attend a top 0.375 percent university, then expectations are for you to make a top one percent income for your age group, not a top twenty five percent income.
A top one percent income for the 27-to-31-year-old age group was about $170,000 in 2014. For the 32-36-year-old age group it was about $210,000.
In 2023, assuming a three percent annual inflation since 2014, a top one percent income for the 27-to-31-year-old age group is about $222,000, and for the 32-36-year-old age group it is about $274,000.
$90,500 is quite a big shortfall for both age groups! The shortfall is even greater when compared to top 0.1% income earners by age.
Median Income By Ivy League University
To get a little more granular, let's look at the median income earned 10 years after attendance by Ivy League university according to the Department of Education Scorecard.
If you want to potentially make the most amount of money 10 years after attendance, attend the University of Pennsylvania with a median earnings of $103,246. U Penn is known for its business school and heavy focus on working in industries that pay the most.
If making the most money 10 years after attendance isn't your top priority, then consider attending Brown University. Brown is famous for its open curriculum, where students have greater freedom to study what they want. Its graduates have a median earnings of $78,943.
1. University of Pennsylvania
- Median earnings 10 years after attendance: $103,246
- Average annual cost: $25,046
- Median debt at graduation: $16,763
- Median earnings 10 years after attendance: $95,689
- Average annual cost: $9,836
- Median debt at graduation: $10,450
- Median earnings 10 years after attendance: $91,627
- Average annual cost: $32,410
- Median debt at graduation: $17,000
- Median earnings 10 years after attendance: $91,176
- Average annual cost: $37,042
- Median debt at graduation: $14,500
- Median earnings 10 years after attendance: $89,871
- Average annual cost: $22,823
- Median debt at graduation: $21,500
- Median earnings 10 years after attendance: $88,655
- Average annual cost: $15,296
- Median debt at graduation: $13,142
- Median earnings 10 years after attendance: $84,918
- Average annual cost: $13,872
- Median debt at graduation: $12,665
- Median earnings 10 years after attendance: $78,943
- Average annual cost: $29,544
- Median debt at graduation: $13,000
Data Is Only From Students Who Took Out Federal Loans
The one big caveat about the median earnings data is that it reflects only students who received federal student aid. Students and families who were able to pay for college without the need for federal financial aid were not included.
One can logically assume that those students and families who do not apply for federal financial aid are wealthier than students and families who do. Non-federal financial aid recipients may also be smarter, thereby receiving more merit scholarships and grants.
Below is data compiled by Elaine Huang from The Daily Princetonian that highlights 49% to 65% of Ivy League students applied for financial aid from 2016 – 2020.
As a result, perhaps the median income earned by Ivy League graduates after attending is higher. Wealthier people tend to have wealthy connections that help their kids get even wealthier.
It's curious to see students from Brown, the university that has the lowest percentage of financial aid applicants, also has the lowest median earnings 10 years after graduation.
One could make the assumption that Brown students may come from the wealthiest families who need less financial aid. Given they come from wealthier families, their students can also afford to major in areas that don't translate as often into jobs in the highest-paying industries.
Whereas with Penn, even though the percentage of students applying for financial aid is similar, its students focus heavily on joining the finance and management consulting fields. Companies like McKinsey & Co. and Goldman Sachs are at the top of their lists.
Mid-Career Earnings Of Ivy League Graduates And Non-Ivy League Graduates
The data from the Department of Education Scorecard was unsatisfactory to me. As a middle-aged man, I wanted to know how much Ivy League and non-Ivy League graduates earn more than 10 years after attending.
Searching further, I found more information by US News & World Report and PayScale that paints a clearer picture about pay differences.
Early-career (three years of work experience) median pay in 2022 was $86,025 for Ivy League graduates, compared to $58,643 for those who graduated from other universities. A 47% pay difference is significant.
Mid-career (20 years of work experience) median pay in 2022 was $161,888 for Ivy League graduates, compared to $101,777 for those from other institutions. A difference of $60,111 a year in gross annual pay difference (59%) 20 years after college is massive!
If two of these Ivy League mid-career professionals marry, they'll have my well-documented $300,000+ household income. With a $300,000+ household income, they're living a comfortable middle-class lifestyle in an expensive coastal city and an upper-middle-class lifestyle everywhere else.
Hence, to get the most out of your attendance at an Ivy League school or similar-level school, work a long time, make lots of great friends, and marry a fellow graduate.
Work Long Enough Post Graduation To Make Attendance Worthwhile
To increase your Return On Investment (ROI) attending an Ivy League or similar school, work as long as possible. Forsake the FIRE movement, which I helped ignite in 2009. The longer you work, the greater the earnings gap compared to non-Ivy League graduates.
However, lasting 20 years in one profession is hard. Personally, I could only last for 13 years in banking before I was burned out. Even with today's greater work flexibility due to work-from-home and technology, I still might have lasted for only 20 years at most.
If you end up changing professions, you may have to take a large pay cut. A pay cut lowers your ROI, but at least you might be happier doing something new.
If you're thinking about retiring early or taking things easier before age 40, then attending an Ivy League school may not be worth it, especially if you don't get scholarships or grants.
The same logic goes for those who want to become doctors, professors, scientists, or lawyers. The more education required by a certain profession, the longer you should or may need to work.
Below is a chart that highlights mid-career median pay by Ivy League school. The likelihood of earning six figures a year in one's 40s is high. As a parent, this should be comforting.
What Do Ivy League Graduates Do For Work?
Based on data for Harvard's class of 2022, roughly 57 percent go into finance, consulting, or technology. In other words, the majority of Harvard graduates chase money and prestige, which is quite different from what they wrote in their college application essays.
Specifically, 23 percent of respondents will begin consulting jobs, 18 percent finance jobs, and 17 percent technology jobs.
Beyond the big three sectors, 9 percent will pursue academia or research, 6 percent engineering, 6 percent health, 4 percent arts and entertainment, 4 percent public service, and 3 percent government or politics.
Below is a great chart by The Crimson which highlights post-graduate employ by industry for Harvard graduates. The breakdown is very similar among all Ivy League graduates. Careerism and the pull of money and status is too hard to ignore.
Yes, A High Salary Isn't Everything
Of course, earning the highest salary you can after college isn't the most important thing to all students and families. Meeting great people, having an amazing time, and building a network of lifelong friends are equally important to some people. So is finding a soulmate.
But this is a personal finance site that is focused on input and output. Measuring the average income for new college graduates and graduates with decades of experience are important for making an informed decision about where and whether to attend college.
Having a great time in college and earning a high income after graduation are not mutually exclusive. You might as well get the best experience and the best financial returns from your investment. Because the more money you make, the more options you will have in the future.
Occupation Profiles Of Select Ivy League Graduates
To get even more granular, I thought I'd profile recent Ivy League graduates to see what they are doing. Understanding the end goal will help us decide whether the effort is worth it.
Given there's an upcoming Supreme Court decision on race and college admissions, I read a 2019 article by Jay Caspian Kang entitled, Where Does Affirmative Action Leave Asian Americans? The article profiled several Asian-American students at Ivy League schools.
Given it is four years later, I was curious to see what these graduates are doing now. Their occupations will also help give context to the $86,025 median income figure three years after graduating and the $90,500 median income figure 10 years after attendance in context.
Thang Diep (Harvard 2019)- Post graduate fellow at the Vietnamese American Initiative for Development (VietAID). Thang is likely earning less than $86,025.
Sally Chen (Harvard 2019) – Education Equity Policy Manager at Chinese for Affirmative Action. Sally is likely earning less than $86,025.
Fatima Shahbaz (Harvard 2020) – Business Analyst at McKinsey & Co. Fatima is likely earning closer to $160,000.
Catherine Ho (Harvard 2021) – Graduate Student In Asian American Studies at UCLA. Catherine is definitely earning less than $86,025 as a student. When she graduates in 2023, she will likely also earn less then $86,025.
Alex Chen (Yale 2023) – Intern at Snap. Alex is still in school, but will likely earn more than $150,000 his first year out if he works as a software engineer.
One More Ivy League Occupation Profile And Some Reflection
Then I read a book written in 2021 entitled The Inequality Machine: How College Divides Us, by Paul Tough. It's a great book.
Tough highlighted a female student named Shannen Torres who got rejected by U Penn and Princeton, but got into Stanford.
After graduating in 2021 with a BA in Comparative Studies in Race and Religion, she got her Masters in Latin American studies. She now works as a Communications Coordinator at Climate Leadership Initiative in San Francisco. Her income is likely less than $86,025.
If I was the father of any of these college graduates, I'd be proud of what they are doing, no matter how much or how little they are making. I just want my kids to pursue a career that pays enough and brings them joy and meaning.
How would you feel if you were one of their parents?
And if these graduates decide to do something else down the road, they'll easily be able to pivot.
Enjoy High School More
Given the median income earned 10 years after attendance is only $90,500 for an Ivy League graduate, high school students don't need to worry as much about getting into a top 25 college anymore. There are likely 75-100 colleges that will provide for similar income and career opportunities as Ivy League colleges.
Further, public colleges will likely continue to climb the rankings given it's much harder to buy your way into public college. Meanwhile, legacy admissions is also not used at the vast majority of public colleges.
The increase in breadth of colleges able to provide similar opportunities should also help alleviate the stress parents feel too. I know it does for me.
But even if you don't graduate from a top-100-ranked college, just graduating from college will help your earnings power.
According to the National Center For Education Statistics, the median annual earnings for 25-34-year-olds with a Bachelor's degree is $59,600. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for all workers with Bachelor's degrees is $69,368 in 2021.
Sure, the earnings difference between attending an Ivy League university and any one of the ~4,000 colleges in America is significant. But not so much if you attend a top 100 college. Further, making the most amount of money after graduating may not be a student’s priority.
If money was your priority, you'd get a major in Electrical Engineering, Computer Engineering, Pharmacy, Aerospace Engineering, Chemical Engineering, and Nuclear Engineering, with average salaries over $100,000.
Go To An Affordable University
If you can attend an Ivy League school or a similar school with enough grants to make it affordable, go for it. If you can't get in, don’t worry. Just select another university that offers you the lifestyle and major that you want at an affordable price.
Earning $90,500 as a 27-to-32 year old is nice. So is earning $161,888 twenty years after graduation, especially if you can marry a person with a similar income. But it is underwhelming if you went to a top one percent university.
Therefore, if you do attend an Ivy League school or a similar school, make sure you develop great relationships that can improve the quality of your life. Here's a great debate I had with my wife on whether paying for private school is worth it. You can subscribe to the Financial Samurai podcast on Apple or Spotify.
Focus On Building Things And Helping Others
If you don't make great relationships or earn a corresponding top one percent income, then at least do something amazing. Create something new or do work that helps others.
Remember all the great extracurricular activities you were doing in high school to try and get into college? I bet the majority of those activities weren't about making as much money as possible! Instead, many of your activities likely involved helping others.
Consider painting a masterpiece that gets picked up by the NYC Museum of Modern Art. Be a violinist at Carnegie Hall. Write a bestselling book that changes people's lives. Reduce child hunger in your city. Invent a device that helps those with visual impairments see better. Or cure cancer already! Yes, someone please cure cancer.
If you do something amazing, you will likely get rewarded handsomely. The reward may not always be financial, but at least you will benefit spiritually.
Readers Questions and Suggestions
With the difficulty of getting into an Ivy League school, are you surprised Ivy League graduates don't earn more? Why is there still so much demand to attend the top-ranked universities, when plenty of four-year accredited universities will do?
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