What is Salary Score, and Why Does it Matter?

By OnlineU team | Updated 8/9/2021

Salary Score is a ranking system that allows students to quickly and easily compare colleges based on alumni salaries by program. We give each school a Salary Score by comparing alumni starting salaries for each degree program to alumni from the same program across all schools. Since some majors tend to earn more than others, we only compare alumni earnings from the same field of study to help students find schools that produce highly-paid alumni no matter what they major in.

Table of top colleges by Salary Score, including Harvard, MIT, Fordham, and University of Pennsylvania.

Many students feel pressure to choose between pursuing their interests or a major that will lead to a high-paying job. Our Salary Score helps students find programs that are more likely to lead to a higher salary in their field, regardless of their major.

We created the Salary Score because we believe students need to know what they can expect to earn after graduation to make informed decisions about their education. In our rankings, we highlight schools whose alumni earn higher-than-average starting salaries for their field of study to help students maximize their earning potential while still pursuing their interests. That way, if a student wants to study social work, they can easily compare the salaries of social work graduates from all colleges rather than looking at an average alumni salary that includes students from other majors.

How are the OnlineU Rankings by Salary Score Different from Other Rankings?

Other college rankings often compare schools by average salary for all alumni, regardless of what they study. This creates two big problems for students:

Other Rankings

This comparison does not give prospective students the full picture because salaries vary widely by program. Ranking by average alumni salary alone and not providing program-specific data makes it hard for students to find which schools offer the best earning potential in their chosen field of study.

These types of rankings elevate schools that produce more graduates from STEM and other highly paid fields of study. Universities that serve more English majors, for example, will have lower alumni salaries overall but may have alumni who are paid more than average in their field. Schools with more business majors will have higher alumni salaries, but they may be earning less than business majors from other colleges.

Our Solution

Salary Score eliminates these problems by only comparing salaries for students in the same majors. The end result is a score that ranks schools not by how much alumni earn overall but by how much alumni from each major earn compared to graduates from the same programs across schools. We also publish program-specific earnings data that students can access by searching for a college using our Salary Score search tool.

Our methodology makes it easy for students to find schools that produce the highest-paid alumni in every field, whether they want to major in engineering or sociology. The Salary Score rankings elevate schools whose alumni earn higher salaries than alumni from the same majors rather than schools with more STEM or business majors.

How Do We Calculate Salary Score?

To calculate Salary Score, we start by looking at median alumni salaries for each degree category offered by a given school. Let’s say we want to find the Salary Score for bachelor’s degrees at Your College, an example college.

Step One: Give each bachelor's program at a specific university a Salary Score

Let's say Your College offers 16 different bachelor’s programs. We start by calculating a Salary Score for each of these programs. For example, if graduates of the economics program at Your College have a median alumni salary of $68,000 per year, we compare this to the average salary for all economics programs in the College Scorecard database, which is $48,000 per year. We then give the economics program at Your College a score on a scale of 0-100 to represent how high the salary is for economics majors at this school compared to the average. In this case, the Salary Score would be 95, which would make it one of the top schools for economics alumni salaries.

We repeat this process for every program with available data at a school, comparing alumni salaries for each program to the average for all alumni in the same field of study to get a picture of how the college's alumni generally fare in their first year out of college. We compare alumni salaries for the nursing program to the average for all nursing programs, and computer science program salaries to the average for all computer science graduates, and so on.

Visual of how programmatic Salary Scores equate to the overall Salary Scores by degree level.

Step Two: Find the bachelor's level Salary Score for a school based on its program scores

Next, we take the Salary Scores for all of the bachelor's programs a school offers and weigh them based on how many students are in each program. We account for the number of students in a program to represent the most likely outcome for most students at a school. That way, if a computer science program has a high Salary Score but only 30 students, and a business program has a low Salary Score based on 300 students, the school’s ranking isn’t affected as much by the few students who earned higher-than-average salaries.

Simply put, we take all of the weighted scores by program and convert them into a final Salary Score for the school. Technically speaking, we use something called z-scores to calculate the overall Salary Score, which you can read about in our methodology.

In our example, Your College has a Salary Score of 82. This means that, for the most part, Your College alumni from most programs earn higher salaries than alumni from the same programs at other universities. While a school’s overall score paints a picture of how most alumni fare after graduation, it does not guarantee that every program has alumni who earn more or less on average than their peers. Students who are interested in specific programs can search for individual schools to compare Salary Scores by major on our sister site, GradReports, to help them determine which university is best for their particular interests and goals.

Visual of how Salary Scores are determined by comparing your college’s salary to other colleges' salaries within the same program.

See our methodology page for a more detailed explanation of the process behind the Salary Score, including how we calculate each score, eligibility requirements, and details about the data used.


Where Do We Get Our Data?

Our data on alumni earnings and the number of graduates by program comes from College Scorecard, a resource provided by the U.S. Department of Education. Every year, College Scorecard releases data on alumni salaries to help students evaluate different schools and majors and make more informed decisions about their education.

College Scorecard collects this data from tax records kept by the IRS and shows the annual income students reported for their first year after graduation. The data includes students who received federal financial aid such as grants, loans, and federal work-study funding.

The Salary Score calculations are based on median alumni salary by program and are weighted by how many students graduate from each program. This helps to ensure that the Salary Score represents the most common outcome for students at a university.