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Business is booming. Whether it’s the scary job market or the fascination with corporate celebs like Steve Jobs and Sheryl Sandberg, record numbers of undergraduates have signed up for business courses in recent years. Today business is the single most popular college major, accounting for nearly 20% of undergraduates.
But here’s the first lesson tomorrow’s tycoons should learn: The college you choose makes a big difference. Students in little-known programs don’t get much attention from corporate recruiters, for example. On the other hand, graduates of strong schools, like Babson College, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of California–Berkeley, and the others on our list of 10 Great Colleges for Business Majors, typically earn more than $50,000 in their first couple of years and reach six figures within about 15 years—without investing in an MBA. The estimated average for business majors overall is $37,000.
Even so, not every business degree is the ticket to a good job. Students in business specialties like hospitality tend to earn less than college graduates with supposedly less practical majors such as history.
While alumni earnings are one useful measure of a business program’s value, students who want the most for their money should also take a hard look at:
• Total costs. Compare the start-to-finish price of a business degree, after financial aid, for each college you’re considering. You can find that information in the “Net Price of a Degree” column in Money’s latest college rankings.
• Alumni network. Loyal and involved alums can help get your résumé to the top of the pile where they work. So ask each school’s career-services office what kinds of events and other outreach it sponsors to connect business students with established alumni.
• Academic rigor. Look for programs that meet the standards set by AACSB International, the major accrediting body for business schools. But don’t stop there. Some business programs fail to provide students with the “soft” skills, such as writing and critical thinking, they need to succeed, according to a study by Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia. So ask about breadth requirements too. At the best schools, business majors also get a solid grounding in the liberal arts.
Read next: 10 Great Colleges for Business Majors