Obtaining a college degree these days is an absolute must, and high college costs -- as well as soaring student debt loads -- make finding a good-paying job after graduation more important than ever.

Is it fair to rank colleges with the earnings of its graduates top of mind? In more recent times, the answer to that question is most often, "Yes." While most would agree that a college education should contribute to a well-rounded individual, the post-college lives of many working adults would be much easier if they could choose a college or university with the knowledge that they would easily find well-compensated employment upon graduation.

Even the Obama administration, in its quest to make college more affordable to the masses, is proposing to rank colleges by determinants such as graduation rates and graduate earnings.

With this in mind, here are four of the top U.S. colleges ranked by Payscale for the amount of money graduates earn when they first start out, as well as during their prime working years.

1. Harvey Mudd College
A small, private school located in Claremont, Calif., Harvey Mudd College has an undergraduate population of fewer than 800. Despite its heavy tilt toward degrees in engineering, mathematics, and science, the school's percentage of female enrollees stands at 42%. Much of that gender diversity is due to President Maria Klawe, who has worked since 2006 to bring more women into the sciences at Harvey Mudd. This year, the freshman class is 52% female, a first for the college.

Graduates starting their working lives with approximately two years of experience can expect to earn $73,300 annually, which will bloom into a yearly salary of $143,000 by mid-career -- or, about 10 years into the employee's work life.

Payscale also awarded Harvey Mudd first place for having the best return on investment of nearly 1,500 U.S. colleges and universities.

2. United States Naval Academy at Annapolis
Unlike Harvey Mudd, the student body at USNA is predominately male, who make up 79% of the approximate 4,535 enrollees. The price is right -- the tuition is zero, since the Navy picks up the tab in exchange for active service -- but only 6.8% of applicants are accepted.

Starting salaries are great, at $77,100 per year, but top out at $131,000 at mid-career, lower than Harvey Mudd's graduates. USNA wasn't ranked for ROI, since there are no tuition costs.

3. and 4. California Institute of Technology/Stevens Institute of Technology
Third place was a tie, with Caltech on the West Coast, and Stevens, located in Hoboken, N.J., representing the Northeast. Both schools produce graduates that achieve mid-level career salaries of $124,000 annually, but differ slightly in beginning yearly wages: Caltech's graduates make $68,400, while Stevens' earn slightly less at $64,900.

The percentage of degrees awarded at these two schools is highest for engineering -- 67% for Stevens and 44% for Caltech  -- which may account for the fact that both schools have an overwhelmingly male student presence on campus.

Caltech merits the No. 2 spot for ROI, while Stevens sits at No. 9.

Of course, not everyone is interested in an engineering or science degree, or wants to attend a military academy. The Payscale list has no shortage of varied institutions of higher learning that offer very respectable starting and mid-career wages, however, so it's easy to find a good fit. As usual, performing due diligence is key to making any type of informed decision, and is particularly vital when the choice could affect the rest of your working life.