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Software Engineers, MBAs and College ROI: A Rebuttal


The co-founder of Bleacher Report wrote a scathing critique of our recently released College ROI Rankings titled “Do Software Engineers Earn More than MBAs?” His main point of contention was the fact that only those with a bachelor’s degree and no higher degrees were included in the sample.
He calls this methodological choice a “joke” and goes on to say:

If you are a doctor, lawyer, or corporate executive with an MBA, then you are factored out of the analysis altogether. This basically means that the only Ivy League or Liberal Arts alums being counted in the study are the English, Anthropology, and Sociology majors who harass you on the street corner with their clipboards and PETA shirts. Alright, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but you get the picture.

While this statement is somewhat of a hyperbole, the message is clear. The financial success of a school’s graduates depends, in part, upon their ability and decision to attend graduate school. However, as we have shown with our own studies on MBAs, Masters Degrees and JDs, only those who are able to graduate from a top tier program or with an in-demand specialty go on to experience relatively high earnings.

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Software engineers vs. MBAs: who earns more?

Furthermore, the decision to exclude graduate students from our report is intentional and rational. It is difficult to tease out the earnings that are impacted by an undergraduate education and those that are impacted by a graduate education. For example, if we have a student with a bachelor’s degree from Princeton and a master’s degree from Harvard, are their earnings driven by their bachelor’s degree education, their master’s degree education, or some combination of the two?

Due to this obscurity, we include only those with a bachelor’s degree and no higher degrees so we can explicitly report the earnings of alumni from a given school that do not have other schools potentially impacting their earnings. In other words, we are trying to provide insight to future college students about the earnings that are typical of bachelor graduates from a given school. By focusing on bachelor-only graduates, we give the school full credit for the earnings tied to education and we focus on the highest degree level the majority of college alumni achieve.

Mr. Goldberg takes further issue with the fact that tech schools dominate the top of our list. We readily admit that one drawback of focusing on the typical earnings of all bachelor-only graduates from a given school is schools with a higher proportion of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) majors tend to rank highly because students who major in these subjects tend to take jobs with higher earning power in today’s labor market than do students who study Liberal Arts or other non-STEM subjects.

However, we take some issue with this statement: “…skip the whole college part and just teach yourself how to code by the time you are 18: That’s the best approach to being an engineer… Getting an engineering degree is just about the biggest waste of time ever.”

It is true that coding is one of the only white-collar fields where a college degree is not required. The availability of online course, relevant textbooks, open source software and online project hosting sites like GitHub open the door for someone to self-teach themselves coding.

However, not everyone has the wherewithal and endurance to be self-taught and going the road alone can greatly extend the length of the journey. Furthermore, by choosing to shun college, you lose the networking opportunities presented to alumni, which can hinder one’s ability to obtain a job in today’s shaky economy as connections often play a key role, especially in tech hubs like Silicone Valley. Finally, students who study computer science in school tend to have a more comprehensive understanding of the theory behind programming languages than do those individuals who are self-taught.

The key message of the ROI study isn’t to provide future college students with a “beat-you-over-the-head reiteration of something that everybody has known for over a decade now… if you know how to code, then you are going to make a lot of money.” The key message is to understand the potential earnings one can receive with education and how this relates to the cost of said education.

The information in the ROI package should not be the be-all, end-all decider of which school to attend or even which degree to obtain, but rather it should play a part in the overall educational decision. If you choose to major in a STEM field, then great! We need more of you, especially if you’re a woman. However, the real goal of attending college should be to boost one’s critical thinking skills, which are imperative to financial and professional success. This is a point Mr. Goldberg and I agree upon:  “Knowing how to think critically and address real problems is the actual pre-requisite for starting a great company (or adding tremendous value to a company that you didn’t start).”

Katie Bardaro
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