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The world's top economies increasingly depend on skilled workers, with college graduates in high demand. A report from the research firm PayScale provides calculations on the returns to higher education in US universities. Its authors compare the career earnings of college graduates with the present-day cost of a degree at their universities.

Top universities may be growing ever more selective, but the returns on a college degree still depend far more on field of study than the choosiness of the university itself, according to PayScale. Engineering and computer-science students earn most, achieving an impressive 20-year annualised return of 12% (the S&P 500 managed just 7.8%). Engineers were also least dependent on institutional prestige: graduates from less-selective schools experienced only a slight decrease in average returns. Business and economics degrees also pay well, delivering a solid 8.7% average return. Courses in arts or the humanities may pay intellectual dividends but provide more mixed economic returns. Students concerned about their financial outlook should worry less about their school's rank and spend more time brushing up on maths.

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