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Personal Finance Reports

Expectations vs. Reality: Early Career Salaries

When young adults graduate college and head off into the “real world,” they often feel both excited and nervous.

The uneasiness stems from leaving the comfort and fun of a college campus where a student just spent four or more transformative years while the excitement stems from the anticipation of a landing a lucrative job that opens up possibilities far removed from the days of dieting on ramen and Red Bull.

However, LendEDU’s most recent study found that college students are overestimating how much they are going to make right out of college compared to what most will likely bring home.

Using data licensed from College Pulse, LendEDU analyzed over 7,000 responses, categorized by school, from current college students to uncover what they anticipate they will make immediately upon graduating.

These numbers were then compared to statistics from PayScale that report the average salary for a college graduate with zero to five years of experience at nearly 1,000 different colleges and universities.

The final results revealed that college students could be in for disappointment when they begin fielding full-time job offers post graduation.

Overall Data

When looking at the data as a whole, LendEDU found that college students will actually make about 81 percent of what they anticipate, on average.

Specifically, the median expected salary after graduating was $60,000, but the PayScale data showed that the typical graduate with zero to five years experience makes $48,400.

College students should expect to receive a comfortable salary after graduation; ambition is a good thing. However, it is important to keep the expectations in check to allow for realistic budgeting and financial planning.

Moreover, the PayScale data takes into account graduates that have up to five years of full-time work experience, which should bring up the average salary a considerable amount. The College Pulse numbers only reflect what students expect to make with no experience at a full-time job.

Taking this difference into account, it is likely that college students are more aggressively overestimating their expected income than what our analysis actually shows.

School-by-School Data

As noted earlier, the College Pulse data allowed for LendEDU to look at what college students at 62 different colleges and universities throughout the U.S. expect to make right after graduating.

These figures were stacked up against the PayScale data, which reports the average salary at each of those 62 schools for graduates with zero to five years experience.

The table above accounts for every single college or university that had enough data to analyze from College Pulse. The list is in ascending order based on the far right column labeled “Percent Difference.”

For example, students at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale were the most bullish in terms of their salary expectations out of college. In reality, these students were making 70 percent of what they thought they would make.

On the contrary, attendees of the University of Minnesota were the most bearish as they made 24 percent more than what they expected to make.

The next two graphics represent each end of the spectrum and the schools that fell squarely in the middle. As you can see, we included the six most bullish schools in the scatter graph, the six most bearish schools, and the six schools that were spot on with their expectations.

The bar graph presents the same concept but only three schools for each placement were used.

After talking to a few recent graduates, our data paints a very similar picture as their experiences.

Bryan Pattman, a graduate from Seton Hall University, underestimated how much he was going to make:

When I graduated Seton Hall University I went into the workforce with the mindset of making $40,000 a year in a position that I would be able to grow in or get enough experience to allow me to make a large jump if I switched companies. Three years out I am expecting to make around $55,000 and then five years out I expect to be making around $70,000. I feel like I am on track or I am slightly underestimating my salary in the future.

Bryan Pattman, Graduate from Seton Hall University, Employed at 9Sail

Contrarily, Cheyenne Goguen initially overestimated her initial salary, only to wind up underestimating how much she would be making:

As a graduate, I was hoping to start at around $60,000. I ended up starting at around $34,000. I ended up leaving the company about a year after. When I started my search for a new job, I found the perfect company and was a perfect fit for the position. They offered me around $45,000 because of my lack of years in the business. After nine months of negotiations, they hired me on at my asking salary – $62,500. I’m now a year into this job and am making around $67,000 – just higher than the salary I hoped to start my career with.

Cheyenne Goguen, Class of 2015 Graduate

Ultimately, it is important for recent graduates to temper their salary expectations so as to not be disappointed and to potentially avoid turning down a job that could be a perfect fit.

And, with a few years of resume-building and developing an adept ability to negotiate in the business world, that recent graduate can earn the salary they were expecting and then some.

Managing Your Finances as a College Graduate

For recent college graduates, managing finances can be quite a challenge. This is especially true if for those not making as much money as they expected.

Here are some tips when it comes to managing your finances as a college graduate.

Take Care of Your Student Loan Debt

If you only recently graduated from college, chances are that you have student loan debt that needs to be repaid. Paying off those student loans as fast as possible will go a long way toward securing your financial future.

Whether you have federal student loans or private student loans, one way to help pay them off is through refinancing your student loans. Refinancing your student loans can help you save money by securing you a lower interest rate than the student loan interest rate you originally had.

Look Into Side Hustles

Whether you start a blog, become a freelancer, pet-sit, drive for Uber, or sell something online, having a side hustle can be a great way to earn extra income and relieve financial stress.

Invest in the Stock Market

Investing in the stock market is another popular way to make some extra money. If you have never invested before, LendEDU has a great guide on how to start investing.

In 2020, robo-advisors make it very easy to start investing, so check out this article for some of the best robo-advisors. Additionally, there are a plethora of micro-investing apps out there to help get you started down the right financial path.


All of the data that can found within this report derives from two sources of data. The first being College Pulse, which was used to develop the expected salary figures. College Pulse, an online survey and research platform focused on the college demographic, collected responses from 7,717 college students who are currently enrolled full-time in four-year degree programs for the following question: After graduation, what do you expect your annual salary to be?

The initial sample was drawn from College Pulse’s Undergraduate Student Panel that includes over 225,000 verified students representing more than 200 different four-year colleges and universities in all 50 states. To reduce the effects of any non-response bias, a post-stratification adjustment was applied based on demographic distributions from the 2017 Current Population Survey (CPS). The post-stratification weight rebalanced the sample based on the following benchmarks: age, race and ethnicity, and gender. The sample weighting was accomplished using an iterative proportional fitting (IFP) process that simultaneously balances the distributions of all variables. Weights were trimmed to prevent individual interviews from having too much influence on the final results.

To find the overall median expected salary number, we used all individual answers from survey respondents, no matter the school. For a college or university to be specifically included in the study, however, it had to have at least 30 students answer the question. For each school that met the cutoff, we found the median expected salary.

The second data source was PayScale. PayScale’s College Salary Report lists out the early career pay at nearly 1,000 colleges and universities. According to PayScale, early career pay is the median salary for alumni with zero to five years experience. To find the overall actual pay figure that we used, the median was calculated using the early career pay figure at each and every school included in PayScale’s report.

To calculate the “Percent Difference” at each school, we simply divided the the early career pay at a respective school by that same school’s median expected salary and multiplied by 100.

See more of LendEDU’s Research