College Rankings Based on Debt and Earnings by Major


It seems as though there are a zillion different college rankings out there. Of course, U.S. News is the mother of all college rankings, according to many, but that list has garnered more than a few criticisms for various reasons (and prejudices). You can find rankings for best value, changing lives, best food, happiest students, best study abroad programs, best Greek life, etc., etc.

However, up until now, according to the latest information I've received regarding a company named Optimal, its GradReports site offers something not available before: "A comprehensive, data-driven college rankings service that is first to publish and synthesize recently released data from the Department of Education on median alumni salary and debt one year out of school, but importantly, organizing the information according to college major and then ranking the top 25 schools for each."

That's a big descriptor, granted, but I think it's an important one. To be precise about detailing GradReports and what it can do for you, if you're looking for deep background on colleges, allow me to quote generously from the release (adding some of my own emphasis for clarity) that brought both Optimal and GradReports to my attention:

Up until this point, other companies and organizations have offered similar rankings information regarding return-on-investment, but only according to school, not major or degree. And the information hasn't been presented in an easy-to-understand or synthesized way, doesn't show the "best" schools based on these datasets, and doesn't give users an easy way to compare between schools. The website interfaces are also confusing, they often promote the same sets of exclusive colleges based mostly on brand recognition and funding, and they're not transparent about where their data comes from.

Optimal's mission was to create a product that does all the things they don't do, and they have now succeeded on that mission, becoming the first and only college rankings and reviews service to publish tuition, debt costs and earning potential based on specific college major and degree level, presented in a clear and transparent, easy-to-compare, user-friendly interface ...

it allows students to search according to their personal strengths and interests, or simply see what focus at what school will bring the best financial outcome. It will help them answer the question "is this degree from this school worth it, and is it the best choice for me?" … students can now use this outcomes-based data to choose a clearly defined and personalized educational path that can lead them to success -- without the burden of insurmountable debt.

That's an intriguing, if not challenging task, which Optimal believes it has accomplished via its methodology. The one aspect that stands out for me, especially for a rankings undertaking, is that last phrase: "without the burden of insurmountable debt." The issue of student debt is, as my readers should well know, one of my key concerns because of the negative, lifelong consequences it can inflict. A rankings approach that considers debt should be of serious interest to anyone searching for candidate colleges.

The Outcomes Might Be Surprising

What caught my eye immediately in this release was the headline: Optimal Seeks to Mitigate College Debt Crisis by Matching Dollars with Sense:

it has never been more important to bring relevant data to the application process, in order to factor in the true cost and benefit of attending college.

To bridge the gap in knowledge, Optimal (formerly SR Education Group) launched a comprehensive collection of data-driven college rankings on The new product is the first to incorporate the Department of Education's recently released data on median alumni salary and median alumni debt by college major at each university. This allows students to make a cost to benefit analysis before choosing a school and major ...

GradReports is the only college ranking product to publish and synthesize the new US Department of Education data from College Scorecard. The report was made public in November 2019 and contains early-career earnings and median debt data that have been gathered nationwide since 2015, as part of an Obama-era initiative. Until now, college ranking services have not been able to give students the full financial cost of a school matched against the potential post-collegiate earnings for specific college majors ... features rankings for over 70 campus-based bachelor's and master's degree programs and 20 online degree programs, listing the top schools in each degree category based on median salary one year after college. Combined with a collection of over 30,000 student reviews and recommendations for more than 2,000 schools, these new rankings have been created to provide students with both subjective and objective evaluations of different colleges by making the most up-to-date, relevant and accurate data accessibleData-driven college rankings by major, based on salary data of over 5 million graduates ...

Here's some interesting information from the intro to GradReports' rankings:

Do elite colleges matter? In many programs, less selective colleges perform just as well as elite colleges. For example, the top three highest-earning schools for civil engineering majors are Stevens Institute of Technology ($72,700), Santa Clara University ($72,500) and San Jose State University ($72,100), topping more prestigious schools such as Notre Dame ($69,200), Cornell University ($67,100), and Columbia University ($66,000)Below are the list of rankings for bachelor's programs. You can also see the rankings for the best graduate programs, best online degree programs, and best online master's programs ...

These are amazingly large and comprehensive listings, by major. For example, for undergraduate degrees, I scanned down through the majors (helpfully listed alphabetically) to Computer Science and found this:

We ranked the top 25 schools by median salary one year after college for students who graduate with a bachelor's degree in computer science. The top ranked school is Brown University, with a median salary of $141,100 for CS alumni. The school with the lowest median debt for CS majors is Duke University, with a debt of $7,890. The range of median salaries for computer science majors at the top 25 schools is $85,300-$141,100.

Tuition, median salaries, and median debt were reported by the U.S. Department of Education. View our methodology for more details about these rankings or read more about the top-ranked schools.

Following that introduction is a list of the top 25 schools, each with a link to an expanded profile (for the top five) or student/graduate reviews (for the remaining 20). The numbers listed for each school are "Annual Tuition," "Median Debt" and "Median Salary." While you may be able to compile this information from other sources, the big advantage for me is to be able to do this by major in a clear and easily understandable presentation.

There's obviously more to GradReports, but I encourage you to discover for yourself what I have not mentioned. I'll be spending much more time exploring this great resource. I hope you will, too.

Share Your Thoughts

We'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Check out our forum to contribute to the conversation!