College student Jonah Thune has not yet committed to a specialty in mechanical engineering — his chosen field of study at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology.
But despite a bit of academic uncertainty, one thing is pretty certain for the 21-year-old senior: that he'll make darn good money in any job he lands after graduation.
A recent comparison of starting wages for college graduates across the country put the School of Mines pretty close to the top, ranking 11th highest in the nation at more than $65,000 a year. The survey looked at graduate pay at more than 1,000 American colleges.
School of Mines students can expect to earn that average of $65,600 annually within the first few years of their career, and nearly $95,000 midway through to retirement, according to PayScale, a Washington state firm that crunches career and salary data.
South Dakota State University grads came in at $45,800 in the survey, and alumni of the University of South Dakota followed at $42,600 for annual pay for recent graduates.
For Thune, the bright outlook for salaries at Mines was a factor in his choice of colleges.
"Honestly, that's one of the reasons I came here," Thune said before a Sunday study session on campus.
He said he applied at other schools in the region, such as the Colorado School of Mines and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. But those options proved to be too costly.
"They were just leaps and bounds more expensive," Thune, a valedictorian of his high school in Ortonville, Minn.
Given the cheaper tuition, and its prominence among other schools in terms of graduate salaries, the School of Mines was a deal too good to refuse, he said.
Other students also acknowledged that high graduate pay and low tuition was an attraction to the Rapid City public university. "I think it's a pretty good deal," said Kirk Fredrickson, 22, a junior mechanical engineering student.
Fredrickson said he expects a decent living with an engineering degree, but he added that wasn't the sole driving force behind his decision to study mechanical engineering.
He has always been fascinated with the mechanics of how things work, and there's a demand for people with his skills, according to PayScale.
The firm reports that schools graduating the majority of their students with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM fields, are typically sending out top-earning alumni, given the immediate need for those skills in the current economy.
About 92 percent of Mines students carry degrees in those four fields, so high-ranking salaries can be expected, according to school President Heather Wilson.
"Mines prepares leaders in science and engineering, and companies are willing to pay good salaries for our graduates," Wilson said in a statement last week.
The PayScale rankings lumped public and private schools together as well as liberal arts and technical schools.
The top five schools for early-career salaries are: the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis at $80,700 annually; Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., at $75,600; the United States Military Academy at West Point at $75,100; the California Institute of Technology at $74,800; and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at $70,300.