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The best colleges also have the biggest gender wage gaps

September 15, 2015, 7:44 PM UTC
University Of Birmingham Hold Degree Congregations
BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - JULY 14: Students throw their mortarboards in the air during their graduation photograph at the University of Birmingham degree congregations on July 14, 2009 in Birmingham, England. Over 5000 graduates will be donning their robes this week to collect their degrees from The University of Birmingham. A recent survey suggested that there are 48 graduates competing for every job. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Photogrpah by Christopher Furlong — Getty Images

You might want to reconsider sending your daughter to an Ivy League school.

On Saturday, the U.S. Department of Education released the most complete set of data to-date on college completion, student debt, post-school earnings, and other information related to higher education. One of the most interesting patterns revealed by the data was a consistent gender gap in graduates earnings.

Kevin Carey, education policy program director at the New America Foundation, identified this disparity in the New York Times. Carey writes that—looking at students enrolled in 2001 and 2002—graduates of every top university showed a notable gender pay gap ten years later. Fortune reached out to Carey to get more of his thoughts on these findings.

The gap is “not surprising given the broader wage gap in society,” says Carey. More surprising, in his opinion, is the variation in the size of the disparity; the gap is widest at the universities whose students tend to earn the most—which also tend to be the most prestigious schools. Of the eight Ivy League universities, Harvard University, which had the the highest median earnings ten years after the students’ enrollment, also showed the largest pay gap.


The size of the wage gap seems to contract as earnings decline, Carey notes. Graduates of the Brown University, which earned the least of all other Ivy League graduates, also had the smallest gap in earnings.

While Carey doesn’t have an explanation for the wage disparity, he doesn’t believe that the phenomenon can be attributed solely to students’ choice of industry.

“Careers have a lot to do with gender gaps, but at the same time, even if you control for career, that doesn’t explain [the difference in earnings],” he said. Research done by the American Association of University women supports this notion. In its 2007 report Behind the Pay Gap, it found that after controlling for job, workplace, demographics, experience, education and training, women still have an unexplained pay gap of 12%.

Yet it’s worth considering the career fields that attract students from top schools. As Carey points out, many of the highest-earning careers tend to be in STEM fields, which are also the least “friendly” towards women. Research supports this: 40% of women with engineering degrees either leave the profession or never enter the field, with the hostile, male-dominated environment of the engineering workplace cited as the top reason.

And then there’s finance. According to data from the career services offices of top schools gathered by Catherine Rampell for the New York Times, finance was the most popular career for Harvard graduates in 2011 (17% of all graduates went into the industry upon graduating). At Yale, 14% of the 2010 graduating class pursued careers in finance, and at Princeton, 35.9% of graduates who had jobs at the time of graduating in 2010 were headed into the industry.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the financial industry is also where you find the most pronounced pay gap between men and women, according to the Center for American Progress. Of the four occupations with the most dramatic earnings inequality, three were in the financial industry. The worst off are female personal financial advisors, who earn 61% as much as their male counterparts.

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