Top tech salaries go to those who graduate college

Computer science and engineering majors from these schools nab top dollars after they graduate

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Didn't your mom tell you to stay in school? If you're in IT, she was right. Lots of training and certifications options are available to you at work, but in many respects nothing beats a degree from a top-tier college when it comes to boosting your earnings potential.

Consider the lavish pay earned by graduates of Stanford University. If you leave "The Farm" with a bachelor's in computer science, you'll earn $97,100 a year at the beginning of your career. By the time your working life reaches the 10-year mark, your salary will jump to $146,200, according to a survey of graduates of more than 1,000 U.S. colleges by PayScale, which tracks salaries across many industries.

MIT didn't make the top five -- it was No. 13 -- colleges in terms of highest pay for grads at midcareer, but computer science grads of that excellent school don't need to take a second job at Starbucks. They start out with a median salary of $88,200, which rises to $123,000 at midcareer.

Top 5 colleges for the highest midcareer salaries for computer science majors with a bachelor's degree

Only a small number of people attend elite schools, of course, but serious money is attached to college degrees for techies from any number of solid schools -- whether it's a bachelor's, a master's, a doctorate, or even an associate's degree. Elite school graduates make more, but going to any reputable college matters when it comes to getting good pay.

Earning a master's degree in computer science, for example, nets early-career median salaries of a little less than $80,000. That increases to nearly $120,000 after a decade, says PayScale. (A reminder: Half of people make less than the median, half make more.)

PayScale's newly released College Salary Report contains a trove of data on the monetary value of education in many fields, and it includes tools that let you drill down into more detailed data. It is based on a sampling of 1.4 million graduates of two-year, four-year, and graduate-program colleges and universities. The report doesn't adjust salaries for the cost of living in different locales, but other research by the company does, as we presented this past summer.

Graduate degrees pay off

What about the value of a graduate degree? In the case of computer science, it's pretty much a no-brainer, though you'll need brains to earn one: more education equals more money. Here's a comparison of median salaries for computer science degrees, again from PayScale data:

  • Associate's CS degree: $75,400
  • Bachelor's CS degree: $112,000
  • Master's CS degree: $129,500
  • MBA with a CS degree: $149,400
  • PhD CS degree: $145,400

An MBA makes you extravaluable

Notice that computer science grads who go on to earn an MBA come out ahead. The reason becomes obvious if you spend any time talking to or reading about high-level execs at large tech companies: rising to executive management often requires an MBA.

As IT becomes less of a service organization and more integrated with the enterprise as a whole, technology pros with business skills are in high demand, even if they don't aspire to a C-level job, says David Foote, a principal analyst at Foote Partners, which tracks the value of certifications and skills in IT. (Here's a look at 2014's hottest IT certifications.)

An MBA is also important if you're thinking of launching your own company -- so don't turn up your nose at courses in sales and marketing in grad school. "I should have taken many more sales classes at Stanford. I thought I was pretty good at engaging customers coming out of the military, but I didn't really learn how to identify customer problems and work through them to deliver a solution," John Fenwick, the co-founder of SkyBox Imaging told me last year. (Regardless, Fenwick made out rather well: He sold his company to Google in June for a reported $500 million.)

Engineering majors make good money, too

Advanced degrees pay off for computer engineering majors as well. Median salaries for those with an associate's degree average $89,100, a bachelor's degree bumps that up to $121,000, and a master's degree brings the total to $134,000.

The same is true for electrical engineering majors: The median salary is $79,200 for those with an associate's degree, $118,300 for those with a bachelor's degree, $135,700 for those with a master's, and $150,600 for those with a doctorate, according to PayScale's survey.

There is, though, one serious caveat: debt. Graduate degrees can be insanely expensive, and stories of people still paying off student loans years after they graduate are common. That aside, the evidence is clear: More education early on equals higher salaries for IT professionals.

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