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The Best Colleges for Your Money

September 21, 2016, 4:00 PM UTC
Graduates Celebrate On The Southbank
LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 15: Students throw their caps in the air ahead of their graduation ceremony at the Royal Festival Hall on July 15, 2014 in London, England. Students of the London College of Fashion, Management and Science and Media and Communication attended their graduation ceremony at the Royal Festival Hall today. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Photograph by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

If you (or your offspring) applied to Harvard or Princeton but didn’t get in, cheer up. According to PayScale’s 2016 College Salary Report, degrees from plenty of other colleges pay better anyway.

Number One on this year’s list is a school you probably never heard of: SUNY Maritime College. Part of New York’s state university system and located in the decidedly unglamorous Throgs Neck neighborhood of the Bronx, tiny Maritime (current enrollment: 1,860) counts among its alumni several CEOs, astronaut Scott Kelly, and Joseph Hazelwood, who captained the ill-fated Exxon Valdez.

The school returns a stellar 13.2% annually on grads’ investment, PayScale reports. Total for all 4 years there is a relatively modest $89,000, while alumni earn an average of $139,000 in mid-career, for a total 20-year ROI of $945,000.

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Compare that to Princeton, which ranks third on this year’s list. Four years there will set you back $224,000, yet annual ROI is just 8.2%. Mid-career grads make an average of $128,000, for a 20-year ROI of $820,000. As for Harvard, it’s in 10th place, with a $235,000 price tag and a 20-year return of $739,000 — $206,000 less than Maritime.

Granted, much of the disparity is most likely because virtually everybody at Maritime studies some type of engineering. On the entire ranking of 1,000 colleges and universities, those whose grads earn the most are schools offering “a limited set of in-demand majors — engineering, computer science, statistics, and math,” notes Katie Bardaro, PayScale’s vice president of data analytics. Fifteen of the 20 best-paying undergraduate majors in the report are engineering-related, with petroleum engineering (average annual pay: $172,000) in the top spot.

Thinking of pursuing an MBA? Almost three-quarters (74%) of graduate business majors lead to “six-figure median mid-career salaries,” PayScale says, but your major matters here too. MBAs in human resources and accounting earn the lowest pay. The highest-paid MBAs are in strategy, followed by entrepreneurship and finance.