Few choices can change the trajectory of a young person's life like which college they attend. To help make the decision-making process a bit less stressful, the U.S. Department of Education offers an online fact-finding tool called the College Scorecard. Prospective students can filter schools by state and region, as well as rank them by graduation rate and cost.
But would-be undergrads might notice one surprise hidden in the data. Rank the Californian schools by post-attendance earnings, and Stanford University, widely regarded as one of the state's most selective and prestigious universities, comes in second place.
The number one undergraduate school? Samuel Merritt University, a small private health sciences college in Oakland.
The 'median earnings' figures come from students' average reported earnings 10 years after they first entered the school. The median yearly earnings for SMU students 10 years out is $106,700, according to the scorecard. The median yearly earnings for Stanford students, by contrast, is $85,700. That's a sizable gap.
Now, don't rip up your Stanford pennants yet – those numbers come with a few caveats. Perhaps, most importantly, the earnings data only includes students who received federal loans or grants. About 70 percent of Samuel Merritt University's 506 undergraduates received federal loans in the 2014-15 school year, compared to just 12 percent of Stanford's nearly 7,000 undergrads.
Secondly, as a U.S. Department of Education spokesperson explained, outcomes for the typical student vary a great deal within schools, as well as between them. Schools that offer primarily programs in high-earning fields (like health) would naturally report higher median earnings for its students than schools offering degrees in many different fields, because careers in some of those other fields will drag down the average. (The number 3 and 4 rankings by post-school earnings go to undergrad universities specializing in health sciences, too.)
Lastly, the median earnings figure excludes anyone still in school. Those in grad school 10 years after enrolling in their undergraduate program wouldn't count.
Despite all these qualifications, prospective undergrads should feel confident that the investment will probably pay off. According to Department of Education data, high school graduates aged 25-34 earn on average only $25,000 a year nationwide. But plenty of Californians are uncertain about the benefits of higher education; just half of adults surveyed in a Public Policy Institute of California poll out this month said they felt a college degree was necessary for professional success.