Which Colleges Produce Grads Who Find Meaning in Their Work?

Elite private universities aren't even close to the top in a study of whose alumni believe their jobs are making the world a better place.

It’s pretty predictable which universities will top the annual U.S. News and World Report rankings—Princeton, Harvard, and Yale—though their order may shuffle slightly.

But there’s one measure in which those "top" schools consistently lag behind: how meaningful their graduates feel their jobs are. Every year, PayScale surveys 1.4 million college alumni from over a thousand U.S. colleges. In addition to collecting data on income, they also ask: Does your work make the world a better place? The answer options range from “very much so” to “my job may make the world a worse place.” Apparently, only two thirds of graduates of schools like Harvard and Yale feel that their work is making a difference. The number one school for sending alums off into meaningful work is Loma Linda University in southern California.

“The main factor is job choice, which is largely tied to major,” says Katie Bardaro, lead economist at PayScale. “Typically, the schools that see the most job meaning have majors that make the world a better place.” So which majors should meaning-seeking students choose? Medical fields, social work, and education, according to PayScale's data. Counting down the top schools in the job meaning category are: Loma Linda University (91 percent saying that their job makes the world a better place), University of Texas Medical Branch (88 percent), and Thomas Jefferson University (86 percent)—all with a strong prevalence of nursing majors.

So where do the top schools rank? Just above average: Harvard comes in at 66 percent, Yale at 65 percent, and Princeton—currently ranked at number one by U.S. News—at 57 percent.

“The average across all included schools is 55 percent, so the top schools ... are largely near or slightly above average,” says Bardaro. “This isn’t too surprising as the main factor driving the job meaning measure is major choice and the majors that typically report the highest meaning are things like nursing, education, social work, criminal justice, theology, etc. These are not majors that are very prevalent at [top-tier private institutions].”

Of the majors that are dead last in terms of job meaning: fashion, art, and business. “Finance majors are in the bottom 20 percent of majors for job meaning,” says Bardaro. The two least meaningful jobs are fast-food cooks and lawyers—the latter being one of the highest-earning professions with low job meaning. And the bottom school for job meaning: Fashion Institute of Technology in New York at 25 percent.

There’s good news and bad news for those at the top of the list for job meaning. The good news: You’re happy! The bad news: You’re probably not making very much. Bardaro observes a negative correlation between mid-career median earnings and meaning. And of the more meaningful jobs, only one stands out in terms of earnings: surgeons.