Pay over Prestige: College Rankings that Focus on What Actually Matters to Graduates

Bucking the trends of prestige-based rankings, such as the U.S. News Best College Rankings, GradReports ranks schools based on graduate salaries to help students choose colleges that will offer the most financial benefit

Sung Rhee | Published 1/25/2021

Sung is the founder and CEO of Optimal, the parent company of GradReports. Sung has been featured in several publications, including GeekWire and 425 Business Magazine. For a more in-depth look into Sung’s background, check out the CEO Perspective he authored.


  • The highly influential U.S. News & World Report college rankings focus on prestige rather than student outcomes, which doesn’t always translate to real-world results
  • GradReports seeks to address these issues by introducing our Salary Score, college rankings based on objective data on what students really care about
  • Our methodology enables students to find great colleges that prepare students well for a career without proliferating a pressure-filled, prestige-driven college culture
  • These rankings help students make choices about education that will yield better results for their future

What matters to students? Finding a high-paying career after graduation without drowning in debt

A degree is a significant financial investment, and the choices students make about their education will likely have a lasting impact on their future careers and salaries. The rising tide of student debt and a lack of well-paying jobs means that now, more than ever, choosing where to attend and what to study is one of the most significant decisions in one’s life.

We created these rankings because we saw a critical need for accurate information on what students really care about: how their education will impact their careers. We rank schools using our Salary Score, a proprietary rating system based on how much alumni earn at each school compared to alumni from the same programs across all institutions. This methodology allows students to find schools whose alumni earn high salaries in their field, regardless of what they study.

Our rankings are based on graduate salary data provided by the U.S. Department of Education. These rankings are intended to be used as a tool to help students and families choose the best school for their needs.

Does prestige matter? How the U.S. News & World Report college rankings amplify elitism in higher education

Each year, colleges and universities compete for highly coveted spots in the U.S. News & World Report college rankings, and prospective students rely on these rankings to make crucial decisions about their education – ones that could have a financial impact for decades to come.

The annual lists are met with negative reviews from academics and journalists who say the rankings rely heavily on subjective, low-quality data and measure prestige rather than quality.

Critics also highlight the focus on wealth in the U.S. News rankings, saying they encourage institutions to prioritize wealthy students by giving weight to alumni donations, acceptance rates, and standardized test scores, which are impacted by social and economic factors such as income.

By ranking schools based on affluence and prestige, U.S. News creates a list that inevitably favors privileged students. However, these rankings are used by students from a range of backgrounds, indirectly funneling lower-income students to more expensive schools, which will burden them with more debt.

Rankings based on real-life data: How our Salary Score™ benefits students by focusing on their futures

At GradReports, our focus lies beyond graduation on how much alumni earn directly out of college. To that end, we have created a proprietary rating system for colleges called the Salary Score, based on median alumni salaries in the year after graduating. Our rankings list highlights schools whose alumni consistently earn higher than average salaries across programs.

To determine the Salary Score, we compare alumni salaries for each program at an individual school to the alumni salaries of students in the same programs across all schools. Our methodology offers an overall look at how each college stacks up in terms of student outcomes and highlights schools that prepare students for high-paying careers, regardless of their major.

Given the skills-gap today and the increasingly competitive job market, students are no longer guaranteed a successful career just by attending a prestigious university.

Our data comes directly from the U.S. Department of Education, which obtains salary information from de-identified tax records maintained by the IRS. This ensures the information we use is as accurate as possible and cannot be misreported or falsified by institutions to move up in the rankings.

In comparison, U.S. News ranks colleges based on a combination of factors: graduation rate, acceptance rate, retention rate, expert opinion, faculty resources, financial resources, and alumni giving. Most of the data is collected through self-reported surveys by the universities, which can be falsified or misreported.

Compare and Contrast: GradReports 2021 Best Bachelor’s Rankings vs. U.S. News & World Report 2021 Best National Universities Rankings

*U.S. News does not have a bachelor’s level rankings list
GradReports Rank School Name Salary Score U.S. News Rank
Harvard University1Harvard University 99.54 2 99.54
Massachusetts Institute of Technology 2Massachusetts Institute of Technology 99.13 4 99.13
Yale University3Yale University 98.90 4 98.90
University of Pennsylvania4University of Pennsylvania 98.85 8 98.85
Dartmouth College5Dartmouth College 98.84 13 98.84
Georgetown University6Georgetown University 98.68 23 98.68
Santa Clara University7Santa Clara University 98.23 53 98.23
Carnegie Mellon University8Carnegie Mellon University 97.66 26 97.66
Stanford University9Stanford University 97.52 6 97.52
Dominican University of California 10Dominican University of California 97.21 Regional Universities West24On RegionalUniversities West 97.21
Boston College11Boston College 96.56 35 96.56
Barnard College12Barnard College 96.41 Liberal Arts22On Liberal Arts 96.41
Amherst College13Amherst College 95.90 Liberal Arts2On Liberal Arts 95.90
Princeton University14Princeton University 95.90 1 95.90
Bentley University15Bentley University 95.76 Regional Universities North1On RegionalUniversities North 95.76
Elon University16Elon University 94.87 88 94.87
Trinity College17Trinity College 94.71 Liberal Arts44On Liberal Arts 94.71
Colgate University18Colgate University 94.44 Liberal Arts20On Liberal Arts 94.44
Columbia University in the City of New York 19Columbia University in the City of New York 94.23 3 94.23
Thomas Edison State University20Thomas Edison State University 94.20 Not Ranked 94.20
University of Notre Dame21University of Notre Dame 94.03 19 94.03
University of California - Berkeley 22University of California - Berkeley 93.80 22 93.80
Northeastern University23Northeastern University 93.59 49 93.59
Northwestern University24Northwestern University 93.57 9 93.57
Bucknell University25Bucknell University 92.94 Liberal Arts4On Liberal Arts 92.94
U.S. News Rank School Name Salary Score GradReports Rank
Princeton University1Princeton University 95.90 14 95.90
Harvard University2Harvard University 99.54 1 99.54
Columbia University3Columbia University 94.23 19 94.23
Massachusetts Institute of Technology 4Massachusetts Institute of Technology 99.13 2 99.13
Yale University4Yale University 98.90 3 98.90
Stanford University6Stanford University 97.52 9 97.52
University of Chicago6University of Chicago 91.77 32 91.77
University of Pennsylvania8University of Pennsylvania 98.85 4 98.85
California Institute of Technology 9California Institute of TechnologyNot Ranked*-- Not Ranked*
Johns Hopkins University9Johns Hopkins University 71.87 163 71.87
Northwestern University9Northwestern University 93.57 24 93.57
Duke University12Duke University 92.72 30 92.72
Dartmouth College13Dartmouth College 98.84 5 98.84
Brown University14Brown University 86.30 64 86.30
Vanderbilt University14Vanderbilt University 90.46 36 90.46
Rice University16Rice University 84.11 78 84.11
Washington University in St. Louis 16Washington University in St. Louis 90.06 39 90.06
Cornell University18Cornell University 92.70 31 92.70
University of Notre Dame19University of Notre Dame 94.03 21 94.03
University of California - Los Angeles 20University of California - Los Angeles 62.40 275 62.40
Emory University21Emory University 67.33 202 67.33
University of California - Berkeley 22University of California - Berkeley 93.80 22 93.80
Georgetown University23Georgetown University 98.68 8 98.68
University of Michigan - Ann Arbor 24University of Michigan - Ann Arbor 81.14 91 81.14
University of Southern California25University of Southern California 92.85 26 92.85
*Note: California Institute of Technology did not have enough data to be ranked on our list, as it only has 3 CIP programs with data at the bachelor’s level.

Major Differences Between the GradReports Ranking List and U.S. News Best National University Rankings

Many of the top universities on the U.S. News annual rankings list appear on the 2021 GradReports list as well. However, there are some significant differences between the two. By comparing the rankings, prospective students can see which universities rank highly based on prestige but do not produce graduates who earn higher salaries across programs. Our rankings methodology often allows smaller, lesser-known universities that offer quality outcomes for students to rank well compared to larger universities.

Two universities that stand out are Santa Clara University and Elon University, which both ranked much higher on our list than on the U.S. News rankings. We ranked Santa Clara University at #7 based on Salary Score, while U.S. News ranked the university at #53. Elon University, which held the #16 spot on our list, was ranked #88 by U.S. News.

Many schools ranked highly on the GradReports list that do not appear on the U.S. News national rankings: Dominican University of California (#10), Barnard College (#12), Amherst College (#13), Bentley University (#15), Trinity College (#17), Colgate University (#18), Thomas Edison State University (#20), and Bucknell University (#25) made our list of the top 25 universities but were not listed for best national universities by U.S. News.

Some of these schools aren’t considered “national universities” and are instead featured by U.S. News on the Best Liberal Arts Colleges, Best Regional Universities West, or Best Regional Universities North lists.

Thomas Edison State University is not ranked by U.S. News at all. This school is a predominantly online university that focuses on adult learners and ranked #20 on our list based on Salary Score.

Johns Hopkins University (ranked #9 by U.S. News), Emory University (#21), and University of California-Los Angeles (#22) all ranked highly on the U.S. News Best National Universities list but did not make our top 100 list based on alumni salaries.

Shortcomings of our rankings and the data

We realize that all rankings have shortcomings and cannot show the full picture. By recognizing the shortcomings of our rankings, we hope to show students how these lists can be used as a tool to evaluate schools rather than as a definitive guide.

We use salary data for graduates who received federal financial aid, which is collected through tax records maintained by the IRS, so it does not represent all students who attend these institutions. These data points also only reflect earnings for the first year after students complete their degrees, so it does not take into account salary growth, which can have a large impact on overall earnings.

In general, the salary will also be influenced by the number of graduates who get jobs in areas with a high cost of living, which impacts alumni salaries from schools in those areas.

The sample size for federal financial aid recipients in a particular major at a particular college can be small. You can view the number of students in the sample and other relevant statistics for each college when looking at the College Scorecard database directly.

Lastly, College Scorecard also does not report some data for privacy reasons, so not all programs have the same coverage. While some fields of study are not included, the majority of graduates are alumni from reportable fields of study whose median earnings are included in the data.

The Bottom Line: It’s now possible to know what to expect after college when making a decision about where to attend and what to study

College rankings are a great resource for prospective students, but they should not be the single determining factor in where a student chooses to enroll. Our rankings serve to highlight strong schools whose alumni earn high salaries across various majors, empowering students to make data-driven decisions about their futures. Given the skills-gap today and the increasingly competitive job market, students are no longer guaranteed a successful career just by attending a prestigious university. They need to be able to make informed decisions on where to attend and what to study by understanding what to expect after they graduate. Our hope is that we’ve provided an essential tool to do so with GradReports.