Where do UC Berkeley students go?

A look at the lives of UC Berkeley students after graduation


As the flagship campus of the UC system, UC Berkeley straddles a middle ground between public universities and top-tier private universities. Though UC Berkeley is sometimes compared to Ivy League schools in quality, it stands out among both private and public schools for its relative affordability, large enrollment and diverse academic offerings. To examine what makes UC Berkeley unique, The Daily Californian investigated the paths that UC Berkeley students take after graduation and the impact that college has on their careers.


For students from lower-income backgrounds, higher education is a powerful gateway to climbing the income ladder. When compared to liberal arts colleges such as Amherst College or Ivy League schools such as Cornell University, the UC system enrolls a more diverse student body that includes undergraduates from all income brackets. Though its academic resources are often stretched thin, UC Berkeley provides a high-quality education to thousands of students each year who otherwise could not afford one.

“The public mission has historically been to ensure access to students,” said Tolani Britton, an assistant professor of education at UC Berkeley. “Today, (that) goal of access is fraught. … There’s so many students that want admission, even with the expansion of seats at UC Berkeley.”

The cost of attending a four-year public university jumped 35% over the last decade, according to the College Board. During the Great Recession, state funds allocated for public universities shrunk as tax revenue slowed and governments scrambled to patch economic emergencies. Today's public universities are increasingly dependent on tuition and private donors for assistance. UC Berkeley is no exception, as declining funding from the state of California and the rising cost of living in the Bay Area strain both students and staff.

“There’s been relatively small rises in tuition in the last five years. … Since tuition is the dominant part of the university’s core revenue, that means that the net increase in revenues to the university is like 1% or 2%, whereas academic inflation is more in the 4-5% level,” said George Blumenthal, former UC Santa Cruz chancellor and director of the UC Berkeley Center for Studies in Higher Education. “Berkeley, like many public universities around the country over the last few years, has been struggling with this mathematics. Something’s got to give.”

Over the next few years, COVID-19 will only add to UC Berkeley’s financial woes.

“The UC system, so far, has committed to maintaining jobs. … Services to students, for example, have to be delivered differently — not just teaching, but also counseling services, advising. Those needs don’t go away just because people are at home,” Blumenthal said. “Revenues will be down, but costs won’t.”

Against this background of financial troubles for universities, U.S. student debt ballooned to $1.6 trillion in 2020. Student loans can burden households decades beyond graduation and are a hot-button issue in the upcoming election. Higher unemployment and financial troubles sparked by COVID-19 add to students’ uncertainties about their futures.

Debt also impacts students’ experiences while enrolled in college.

“The amount of debt that you take on has implications for the kind of jobs you’re considering, as well as your choices around both grad school and working,” Britton said. “I think about whether or not students $50,000 in debt are willing to become teachers, outside of programs that might incentivize them through debt reduction, … knowing the salary of a public teacher in California.”

Though student debt has risen around the country, UC Berkeley is an exception. The average financial debt of each graduating class has remained steady or declined since 2010 and dipped in 2016.

UC Berkeley spokesperson Adam Ratliff attributed the trend mostly to financial aid.

“Nearly 7 out of 10 undergraduate students receive some form of financial aid and scholarships,” Ratliff said in an email.

Data shows UC Berkeley’s average financial aid package per student rose from $21,587 in the 2010-11 academic year to $25,162 in 2015-16.

Where do Bears live after graduating?

As a state school, UC Berkeley enrolls mostly California residents who tend to remain in the Bay Area after graduating college. This contrasts with private universities, which attract more students from across the United States. Ultimately, more alumni from private institutions return to their home communities, rather than clustering near their university. This trend reflects UC Berkeley’s role as a public school committed to serving California citizens.

Here, we investigate the geographic distribution of the graduating classes of 2017-2019. We broke the data down by college to visualize the differing paths of graduates based on their specialties. Depending on the types of careers students decide to pursue, they may end up in different places.

The vast majority of new grads decide to stay in the Bay Area. As seen in the chart above, more than half of graduates from all six schools stay in the Bay Area. Students in the College of Chemistry are the least likely to stay, while students in the College of Environmental Design are most likely to remain, with 78% planning to reside in the Bay immediately after graduation. In this way, UC Berkeley resembles other public institutions such as the University of Texas at Austin, where new grads tend to stay close to their alma mater. UC Berkeley differs from elite private colleges, where more than 40% of graduates end up more than 500 miles from their college, according to Emsi, a data firm.

Below, you can see a visualization of the places new UC Berkeley alumni live outside the Bay Area. In the diagram, you can follow links from left to right to see the percentage of students from a certain college planning to live in each area on the right side. Thicker links denote more students moving to that area.

Destinations outside the Bay Area vary by college. Haas School of Business alumni are most likely to end up in the Northeast, with 11% planning to live there. Los Angeles is another popular destination for Bears: 12% of engineering majors and 12% of environmental design alumni decide to live in LA. The percentage of alumni moving internationally is fairly constant across the colleges at about 5%.

How much do UC Berkeley grads earn?

UC Berkeley alumni earn high wages relative to those of alumni from both private and public schools. Even though income varies depending on choice of major and career, earnings across all majors move closer to the median over time.

According to Zach Bleemer, a UC Berkeley doctoral candidate in economics researching higher education, “Berkeley graduates have very high early-career wages, … (which) quickly overcomes the short-run financial challenges caused by tuition and other costs.” He added that “relative to other public institutions, those wages are high.”

Below, you can see the income distribution of recent graduates from each college at UC Berkeley. Each boxplot shows the lower quartile, median and upper quartile of the incomes of a college’s graduating class.

Interestingly, the upper quartile of the College of Letters and Science jumped significantly over the last few years. This can largely be explained by a recent spike in the number of Letters and Science computer science majors. In 2015-16, UC Berkeley granted 422 computer science degrees. In 2018-19, the school granted 706 computer science degrees, according to Cal Answers. Otherwise, the numbers remain fairly consistent — small fluctuations can be explained by variations in response rates among colleges and over the years.

Next, we plotted the income of UC Berkeley grads years after graduation. Below, you can see the income for different major groupings two, five and 10 years after graduation. This shows the figures for 2008’s graduating seniors, the most recent class for which we have data.

In the face of rising debt and an uncertain economic future exacerbated by COVID-19, students may feel pressure to choose majors that promise lucrative careers. Data shows that, although members of the class of 2008 entered a tough job market at the peak of the recession, their earnings increased steadily after graduation. Moreover, every group's income moves closer to the median as time passes, regardless of their initial earnings. The range of incomes also increases, likely due to graduates gaining experience in their respective careers and industries.

What jobs do Bears work after graduating?

Graduating students sit at their commencement ceremony in 2018. KAREN CHOW | SENIOR STAFF

UC Berkeley allows students access to a wide array of majors. Because many students must apply to the college of their choice before arriving as freshmen, the thought of careers is on many minds before even coming to campus.

“Students feel so pressured to have answers, when really, students are only 18, 19, 20 years old and don’t know exactly what their career path is going to look like,” said Kate Zuby, career counseling outreach coordinator at UC Berkeley. “College is a time of exploration.”

Campus experiences through classes, extracurricular activities and friends can help students clarify what they want or do not want out of their major.

“The decision I had was between EEP (Environmental Economics and Policy) and econ,” said rising UC Berkeley junior Bryan Huang. “I ended up choosing EEP … because I wanted the small college feel of (the Rausser College of Natural Resources) and the more hands-on approach.”

“In my first semester, I took an education class, kind of by accident. … Taking that class literally changed my life and career plans. I finally found something that I felt passionate about,” said Namrata Subramanian, a UC Berkeley class of 2020 graduate. “Whatever career path I want to take, … I need to be a teacher first for a couple years before I make systemic change.”

Next, we examine the types of professional lives and jobs that new grads pursue after UC Berkeley. This information is drawn from alumni immediately after graduation and does not reflect their long-term career choices.

Alumni from the College of Chemistry are the most likely to attend graduate school immediately after undergrad, with 28% matriculating to another university. Haas and engineering alumni are the most likely to be employed right after graduation.

For a closer look at the types of jobs new grads take on, we analyzed data from the campus Career Center’s Career Destinations Surveys of graduating seniors from 2017 and 2018. We clustered popular majors into a few different groups: life sciences, political/legal studies, computational studies/math and business/economic studies.

Life Science Majors

Political/Legal Majors

Business/Economics Majors

Computational/Math Majors

In the last decade, UC Berkeley has been part of a broader trend in colleges toward specialization within technical majors.

“We see new departments and majors springing up. … For example, data science: 20 years ago, you wouldn’t have known what that was about,” Blumenthal said. “A lot of it is due to changes in technology.”

Newly established majors such as data science and centers such as the UC Berkeley Advanced Media Institute, which trains students interested in digital journalism, are driven by both shifts in technology and high interest from students. As seen above, technical majors with greater specialization, such as electrical engineering and computer sciences, are linked strongly with certain types of careers after graduation.

Though most engineering students choose to become engineers, the link between major and career is not as strong as it may seem to students.

“Having your eyes set on one prize is often a recipe for challenge or disappointment,” Zuby said. “Majors are not prescriptive or a ‘one size fits all.’ We really want to open horizons for folks to look at other options.”

Students majoring in the humanities tend to pursue a wider range of post-graduation paths, from nonprofit work to teaching to law school.

“People in humanities or social science are more likely to go into a career that differs from the obvious choice in their major,” Blumenthal said. “The interesting question to ask (is) ‘Where are those students 10 years out?’ ”

A few years after graduation, an alum’s major is no longer linked strongly to their profession. UC Berkeley graduates tend to excel in their chosen career paths, though it’s likely not because of the classes they took for their major. “Instead, it just seems to be that, in general, the skills and experiences kids are learning at Berkeley are very highly valuable,” according to Bleemer.

Bears in graduate school

About a fifth of new UC Berkeley graduates each year go on to enroll in graduate school, according to the Career Center.

UC Berkeley’s academic rigor and campus resources provide a supportive environment for students interested in more education.

“(On campus), most of what was helpful to me in deciding was talking to professors. … I talked to them extensively about going to law school,” said Anya Ku, who attended UC Berkeley as an undergrad and is now a student at the UC Berkeley School of Law. “Also, the political science advisers … remembered what we talked about last and the details of my classes.”

Below, you can see the breakdown of graduate degrees that new grads directly pursue after leaving UC Berkeley. To switch between colleges, select the buttons at the top. As a disclaimer, these numbers only account for alumni who matriculate directly to graduate school after undergrad. They do not include those who enroll in graduate programs after a gap year and do not reflect how many students go on to finish their graduate degrees.

Among UC Berkeley alumni who choose to attend graduate school, what degrees do they pursue?

Master's degrees are clearly popular for most majors after college, with 53% of Bears in graduate school pursuing master's degrees. The College of Environmental Design boasts the most diverse spread of alumni across different graduate degrees, with roughly equal portions enrolling in doctorate, medical and law programs.

Below is a diagram showing majors on the left and their intended graduate degrees on the right (only major counts greater than five were included).

In many ways, UC Berkeley provides the educational benefits of elite private universities: high career earnings, good placement for graduate school and diverse academic offerings across technical fields and the humanities. UC Berkeley students cultivate their passions and skills during college, enabling them to pursue an array of careers regardless of major.

At its core, however, UC Berkeley remains a public school that claims to be dedicated to the mission of providing accessible education. In recent years, declining revenues and the impact of COVID-19 have placed that mission under pressure. The next few years will be crucial for determining UC Berkeley’s place in the education system.

About this story

Data for the employment and graduate programs of new graduates was sourced from the UC Berkeley Career Center's survey of graduating seniors each year. In the major-specific diagrams, data was aggregated from the classes of 2017 and 2018. Information on tuition is from the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System database , and the statistics on student debt are from Cal Answers.

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