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What Sets the Top Engineering Schools Apart? Not Just STEM.


At first glance, the list of top colleges in PayScale’s 2016 College Salary Report looks like a love letter to STEM degrees. Not only do science, technology, engineering, and math subjects dominate the list of highest-paid majors by any degree level, there is an undeniable correlation between how high a college or university ranks and the percentage of STEM degrees they grant. But, as anybody who passed a basic statistics class knows, correlation is not causation. A closer examination reveals that what separates the very best STEM-focused colleges from the rest is that they encourage students to branch out beyond a traditional STEM curriculum. By examining what drives the success of the highest-earning college graduates, we can all learn a valuable career lesson and increase our own earning potential.


(Photo Credit: dewfall/Flickr)

SUNY Maritime College is a small public school in Long Island that most people have never heard of, but it produces the highest-paid graduates in the country. What’s the secret to their success?

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First, 46 percent of the degrees granted at SUNY Maritime are engineering or other STEM subjects, and the rest are business. Furthermore, in order to earn one of those degrees, students must complete what the school calls “Professional Experience,” which involves either serving as a third officer in the Merchant Marines or as an intern in private industry. So every student who graduates from SUNY Maritime receives real world experience in addition to a quality education in a subject with high earning potential. This means they enter the workforce with a highly desirable skillset and work experience that most recent gradates lack.

Harvey Mudd College is another dark horse school that regularly makes our list of the colleges with the highest-paid graduates. Fewer than 1,000 students attend HMC, and the school only issues degrees in biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering, math, and physics. But, as it proudly states on its website, Harvey Mudd is “a liberal arts college rather than just a technical school,” and requires its students to choose a concentration in the humanities, social science, or arts to complement their chosen STEM major. As a result, the HMC alumni tend to have excellent communication and critical thinking skills that in addition to their technical skillset. As Laura Victoria, a recruiting manager at Laserfiche, describes, this unique mix makes them very valuable to employers: “[Harvey Mudd] students exhibit a unique approach to problem-solving that is rooted in the school’s disciplined engineering focus and enhanced by a liberal arts education. Mudd students are intellectually curious and creative, bringing a unique perspective to the workplace.”

Just as workers with humanities degrees see a financial benefit from learning technical skills, STEM majors who round out their education with communication and analytical skills like the ones taught in humanities classes also benefit.

You don’t need to go back to school or declare a minor to increase your worth. Two of the most well-known STEM-focused universities in the world, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), don’t have the strict formal liberal arts requirements of Harvey Mudd, but they do encourage students to take part in extra-curricular programs aimed at teaching communication and socialization skills that some of the most engineers often lack.

MIT famously offers its Charm School, a one-week intensive program that teaches students etiquette, networking, and communication skills; and Caltech offers Manners 101, where professors work with a business etiquette consultant to teach students how to navigate dinner parties and business receptions. Sure, the ability to properly choose silverware probably isn’t the primary reason why employers pay top dollar to MIT and Caltech grads, but superior table manners during a lunch interview can absolutely be a deciding factor when a hiring manager is deciding between two equally talented candidates.

Finally, one can’t ignore the fact that two military academies make PayScale‘s top 10. The United States Naval Academy and the United States Military Academy at West Point both produce extremely high-earning alumni. (In fact, all five military academies that we have salary data for rank in the top 30.) It goes without saying that graduates from these colleges are prime job candidates at any company thanks to their combination of top-notch education and active military experience.

You don’t have to attend SUNY Maritime, Harvey Mudd, Caltech, MIT or an elite military academy to have a successful career. What you should do, at any age, is figure out if there are any complementary skills you could learn to increase your earning potential. Whether that means updating technical skills, taking a writing class to learn how to send more effective emails, or conquering your fear of public speaking, making yourself more well-rounded is never a bad idea, and often one that can justify a raise or promotion sooner rather than later.

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