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Private vs. Public Universities: Is CalPoly Better than USC?


Looking at the PayScale data on the pay of college graduates, I was struck again by how very different schools can produce graduates who earn similar salaries.

My favorite example is comparing the University of Southern California (USC) to the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and the California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo (CalPoly). All three are southern California universities. In our report, at mid-career, median total cash compensation of graduates is:

  1. USC was at $103K
  2. CalPoly at $102K
  3. UCLA at $97K

While UCLA pay is 6% less, the differences are not particularly statistically significant between these three.

These are three very different schools: a selective private research university, a leading public university, and a state school whose "career orientation is evident in its programs in Agriculture, Architecture, Business, Design, Education, Engineering, Graphic Communication and Journalism." How can all produce graduates who earn nearly the same amount?

Do You Know What You're Worth?

In this post, I will look at how this is possible, and see what it means for the cost/benefit analysis in choosing colleges.

Should you be earning like a USC grad? Spend 5 minutes completing the PayScale online salary evaluation survey and know.

Different Inputs – Same Outputs

Since I have taken geography – a factor good for ~20% variations in pay of graduates around the country – off the table by comparing schools in California, perhaps all the important characteristics of the incoming students are all the same, so it is not surprising the pay is so similar.

Perhaps the expensive private school, USC, really has much weaker incoming students than CalPoly, so USC is adding more value to its graduates though a USC education.

Fortunately, there is a great data source for comparing students and schools, the Department of Education's IPEDS database, which has a friendly interface called College Navigator. I will use IPEDS for all the non-salary information in this post.

Let's look at one simple measure of the abilities of incoming students: SAT scores.

The 25th to 75th percentile (middle 50%) of enrolled first year students had the following scores(this is the sum of math and reading scores – I don't believe in the newer writing section). Also shown is the cost per year for an on-campus and in-state student (2008-2009 tuition):

  • USC: 1270 – 1470; $51,881/year
  • UCLA: 1160 – 1410; $25,131/year
  • CalPoly: 1080 – 1280; $19,117/year

Basically, 75% of the students at USC would be in the top 25% at CalPoly. For 150% more money, USC takes more able students and gives them an education that leads graduates to earn the same as CalPoly grads.

What about UCLA? At least UCLA only costs 30% more for an education that takes better students and produces graduates who earn 5% less. 🙂

It's the Majors, Stupid

How can this be that a more expensive school, with more able incoming students, produces graduates that earn the same?

As the PayScale college graduate salary report shows, the major a student chooses has a huge impact on future earnings.

Of ~7000 graduates from USC, only ~100 are in the physical sciences, ~200 in math, and ~400 in engineering, or about 10% of the total. CalPoly has ~1000 graduates in these areas, out of 3,600, or about 27% in these high paying major categories.

The other popular majors at CalPoly are similarly hardnosed and practical, in keeping with the school's mission. USC graduates favor fine arts and liberal arts degrees.

Even if only the top 25% of students at CalPoly are capable of doing these hard and best paying majors, then 75% of the students at USC could major in similarly hard majors (based on SATs) and earn more, but they don't.

Perhaps John McCain was right to call USC the "University of Spoiled Children;" USC is where his wife went.

It's Not Just California – BU vs. UM-Lowell

For those who think this is just because people in California are "a little different," a similar analysis can be done for schools in Puritan Massachusetts.

The University of Massachusetts at Lowell (a state technical university) graduates at mid-career make $90K, statistically the same as Boston University (a private university) grads at $91K.

For $51,100 a year, BU takes students with SAT scores of 1170 – 1370 and produces graduates that earn the same as UM-Lowell ($18,736/year in-state) graduates, who entered with dramatically lower SAT scores of 980 – 1180.

Key Missing Metric – Graduation Rate

There is one measure which may justify the cost of a Boston University or USC education: graduation rate.

The PayScale data are for Bachelor's degree graduates. Attending, but not graduating from, college is a huge hit for future income. Four year college non-graduates earn pay typical of associate's degree graduates, about ~$20,000 lower than 4 year college graduates.

While Boston University graduates do not earn more the Lowell graduates, a lot more of the entering frosh actually graduate: 80% for BU vs. 50% for UM-Lowell. Similarly, USC graduates ~85% of incoming students, while CalPoly graduates ~68%.

These are huge differences. Perhaps paying so much for college makes students value it more, and hence actually graduate 🙂

And the Winner is – UCLA

So which school is the best deal, if maximizing return on investment in tuition is your goal?

Taking graduation rate into account, the big winner is UCLA. With a 89% graduation rate, comparable graduates' salaries, and low tuition, UCLA appears to be the best deal in southern California.

All that, and great sports teams too…

Graduate or not, are you being paid what your worth? When you want powerful salary data and comparisons customized for your exact position or job offer, be sure to build a complete profile by taking PayScale's salary survey.


Al Lee

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