With STEM degrees, it’s not the school that matters

In terms of pay, it may not matter whether you went to a prestigious, top-tier school, middle tier or a local state university. Your pay may be little different from that of your peers.

In a new study, researchers looked at STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) salaries 10 years after graduation. It compared the salaries of more than 7,000 people and found little difference in wages for STEM graduates. But students who left with liberal arts degree, for instance, from a top school did earn more than students from a lesser school.

"We don't know why we see this difference" in the impact of school ranking on STEM salaries as opposed to some other majors, said Mark H. Showalter, a professor of economics at Brigham Young University, in an interview. He is one of three researchers on the study.

It could be the result of standardization in science and engineering curriculums, said Showalter.

It's important to note that the researchers worked to make this an equivalent comparison of students. They included SAT scores as a measure of capability, family income at graduation, and other demographic data.

If you look at just the raw salary data and don't account for test and income data, then you will see a difference in wages, said Showalter. The other two researchers are Eric Eide, an economics professor at Brigham Young and Michael Hilmer, an economics professor at San Diego State University. They summarized their findings in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

The findings aren't suggesting students should skip Stanford or Carnegie Mellon and seek out a lower-cost, lower -ier school. But there was little difference in salaries a decade past graduation for STEM graduates from all three school tiers.  "The scatter plots look pretty much the same," said Showalter. 

This data may confirm conventional wisdom about the value of employment history, as well as other surveys that look at the issue.

Robert Half Technology recently surveyed 2,400 CIOs and asked, "What value do you place on the prestige of their college or university" In the survey, 71% of the respondents said they "place more weight on skills and experience" than the school. 

Carla Brodley, the dean of computer science at Northeastern University, said that for computer science students, it is all about whether they can pass the technical interview, which may include a coding test, as part of a hiring process.

"It's not clear to me that higher-ranked schools prepare you better," said Brodley.

Northeastern is a well-ranked school, and Brodley said one advantage it may have is in the types of companies it attracts for recruitment, as well as the networking prospects.

Northeastern has about 1,000 undergrads enrolled in computer science, a five-year program with a cooperative education component that includes spending two or three six-month periods at an actual company.

Brodley said, however, that it matters a lot where you went as an undergrad if you are planning on graduate school.

Dennis Theodorou, vice president of operations at JMJ Phillip Executive Search, agrees that a top-tier school will open more doors for an undergrad. But after 10 years "it's really about the experience you have."

If you have worked at an Apple or Google, "you're still getting the call from a hiring manager - even if you only have a community college degree."


Patrick Thibodeau

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