2021 Best Colleges by Salary Score™ Methodology

Our goal is to help students compare colleges based on the strength of alumni salaries after graduation, regardless of the major they pick. To that end, we ranked the Best Colleges for a Bachelor’s Degree, Best Colleges for an Associate Degree, and Best Colleges for a Master’s Degree by our new Salary Score metric, detailed below. Each college’s Salary Score is based on a comparison of median alumni salaries across the same programs at all schools and weighted by student enrollment in each program. For example, this means that a nursing program salary at one college is compared only to nursing program salaries at other colleges, not to computer science salaries or history salaries. Because of this, schools with more graduates in STEM fields, which tend to lead to higher salaries, won't automatically top our lists. Instead, the rankings reflect colleges whose program offerings outperform the same programs at other schools.

We ranked schools based on our Salary Score because the cost of college is a significant investment and we believe students deserve to know the financial outcomes of graduates. We hope that our rankings will be a helpful starting point for students researching colleges and know that there are many other factors they will want to consider based on their goals and priorities.

Data Sources:

Median earnings in the year after graduation and graduate count in each program were sourced from the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard Field of Study data released in December 2020. Data is for students who graduated in 2016 and 2017, with earnings measured in 2017 and 2018, respectively, and inflation-adjusted to 2019 dollars.

Tuition was collected from the National Center for Education Statistics and represents tuition for the 2018-2019 academic year. The NCES is the primary governmental entity for gathering and presenting data related to education. The NCES does not release data in downloadable formats until it has been approved, so the most current available data will not be for the most recent academic year. Tuition is not part of our Salary Score calculation but is provided to help students compare costs across schools.

Program information, including available degrees and details about program coursework, was collected from official school websites, reflecting data for the 2020-2021 school year and collected between November of 2020 and January of 2021.

Salary Score™ Calculation:

To calculate a school’s overall Salary Score by level, we first calculated z-scores for the median earnings one year after completion for each individual program with the same CIP code and level in the College Scorecard data set. In this way, a degree program at one school was evaluated against the same degree program across all schools. Next, we calculated an average of the z-scores of all the programs at a school for a given level, weighted by the number of students in each program. This average z-score was then converted to our Salary Score.


To be considered for the bachelor’s degree list, schools needed to offer at least 10 CIP codes at the bachelor’s level with reported earnings median and earnings count data. To ensure a variety of degrees were represented, we also checked that a college had data for at least 10 unique programs. For example, if a college had data for the CIP code 13.12 (Teacher Education and Professional Development, Specific Levels and Methods) and 13.13 (Teacher Education and Professional Development, Specific Subject Areas), this was counted as one unique program for determining eligibility. To be eligible for the master's degree list, colleges needed to have at least eight programs that met the above criteria at the master's level, and to be eligible for the associate degree list, colleges needed to have at least five of these programs at the associate level. In cases where a school had several campuses reporting the same data, we only ranked the college one time. You can view the full list of eligible schools for the bachelor's degree ranking and their scores in our appendix.

Limitations of the Data:

Like any data set, the data used for our rankings has limitations and shortcomings.

The earnings data used in our Salary Score is for alumni in the first year after completing a degree. This does not take into account the different levels of growth incomes can experience in the years after graduation and does not make predictions about future income.

The data is based on the earnings of students who received federal financial aid because that is the sample for which the Department of Education has data. This excludes students who did not receive federal financial aid.

To protect student privacy, College Scorecard suppresses student count and earnings data that could be personally identifiable. This decreases the data coverage for some programs. In addition, College Scorecard adds noise to earnings data to further protect student privacy, so the data is less precise than it would be without privacy suppression methods. More information can be found in College Scorecard’s data documentation.