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Report: Utah colleges producing degrees with high earning potential

SALT LAKE CITY — College degrees in science, technology, engineering and math continue to lead to some of the highest-paying jobs for Americans. But graduates from Utah's colleges and universities are among the most well-paid in the country in several non-STEM fields.

That's according to data released this week by PayScale, an online salary comparison company based in Washington. The report ranked more than 1,000 institutions across the country based on the mid-career median earnings of their graduates.

But when it comes to landing a high-paying job, the school students attend may not be as important as the major they choose to pursue, according to Aubrey Bach, senior editorial manager at PayScale.

"We've actually found that what you study affects your future earnings even more than where you go to school," Bach said. "So schools that have really strong engineering or computer science programs are going to actually do better than some schools that just have more famous names in terms of academic success."

The rankings

BYU came in at 111th out of 1,034 schools on the list and highest among Utah schools, with an average early career median salary of $51,700 and a mid-career median salary of $93,000.

The University of Utah ranked 214th on the report and second in the state, with an average early career median salary of $48,100 and a mid-career median salary of $86,100.

But for students who choose to pursue only a bachelor's degree, Utah's schools produced more competitive results. Out of 114 schools ranked by the mid-career earnings of art majors, which includes everything from musical performance to graphic design, BYU ranked 18th and Utah State University ranked 32nd.

Out of 592 business schools, BYU ranked 75th, the University of Utah ranked 186th and Westminster took the 200th spot. BYU's communication program placed 21st out of 133 schools.

Among 88 schools ranked by the wages of humanities majors, the University of Utah ranked 28th. Those students averaged an early median income of $39,000, but the mid-career earnings for those graduates — none of whom went on to graduate school — is $81,600.

Early earnings out of college can be a challenge for students majoring in non-STEM vocations, Bach said. But as they gain experience in the workforce, they can, in many cases, be as successful as their science major counterparts, as indicated by the U.'s humanities graduates, she said.

"The first few years can definitely be a struggle," she said. "But students who put that time in, do some career exploration and find out what they're good at — and also what I think is really key, they learn additional skills — they tend to have a lot of success."

Early childhood education had the lowest mid-career median salary for associate, bachelor's and master's degrees, ranging from $29,400 to $48,100. As many as 91 percent of those who earned those degrees, however, felt that their job made a difference in people's lives, more than most other majors.

STEM careers, especially engineering, offer the highest early and mid-career median pay rates of any field. Petroleum engineering had the highest-paying potential for bachelor's degree holders, with an early career median salary of $101,000 and a mid-career median salary of $168,000.

Nuclear engineering, actuarial mathematics, chemical engineering and electronics engineering followed.

Among the 223 schools recognized for the earnings of their engineering graduates, BYU and the University of Utah tied for 68th place for a mid-career median pay rate of $110,000. Utah State took the 170th spot for a rate of $97,200.

But hard skills aren't the only ones employers are willing to pay for. Last fall, a Dan Jones & Associates poll found that almost 90 percent of several key Utah employers, many of them from the science and tech industries, said recent graduates lack necessary oral and written communication skills.

"Just like how we tell humanities majors that it's really a smart investment to supplement with some STEM skills, we also always want to tell engineering students or computer science students that learning how to communicate and taking a couple humanities classes will probably benefit them in the long run," Bach said.

Weighing possibilities

While BYU and the University of Utah both ranked highly and frequently on the PayScale report, institution leaders say students should consider more than their future salary when deciding on a major.

"Are our incoming students and families thinking about outcomes from the beginning of college? Yes, they are," said Ruth Watkins, senior vice president for academic affairs at the University of Utah. "I think that is important to incoming students and certainly to their families and parents. And I think we as an institution are more mindful as well and beginning to be more informed about what happens to our graduates after they complete."

Todd Hollingshead, spokesman for BYU, said the university tries to help students understand what they can realistically expect from a career, especially when they first enter the workforce.

"Our students and our graduates are very family oriented," Hollingshead said. "As they graduate, they want to be able to provide for their family and their future family. So that's probably something weighing on their minds."

BYU offers career exploration classes and career fairs to allow students to meet with prospective employers and get a better sense of what they can expect in a starting salary, he said.

"We actually have them do research to know, and I think that's a value for the students," he said. "That helps them as they're making decisions to take a job or not take a job."

Bach said students should use the PayScale rankings and other data to get a sense of what careers could provide the most opportunity given the skills they have. That can also help students determine what schools they can afford to attend and avoid ending up with student debt they can't afford to pay back, she said.

"When you're applying to college, it's important to be thinking about what you want to do with that degree, so knowing what field you want to go into and being able to estimate how much you might be earning and also choosing a school where people who study that go on to have successful careers," she said. "That's what we want this data to help people achieve."

Also more important than salary or even the major students choose, according to Watkins, is a student's ability to be flexible throughout their career, gaining skills and knowledge well after graduation.

"The market demands do change over time, so we need to think about preparing students for life, preparing students to be able to change careers, to move into different jobs more than we do to prepare for a single job or a single career," she said. "The ability to continue to learn throughout their life is probably more important than anything else."


Twitter: MorganEJacobsen