Can the college you choose really make a difference in how much money you make?

Yes, says a new Brookings Institution report.

And two Minnesota colleges made its top 10 lists.

The report, released Wednesday, found that graduates of a community college in Fergus Falls and Carleton College in Northfield both earn far more than their peers at comparable schools.

While it’s the kind of publicity that money can’t buy, even the experts admit that they’re really not sure why.

“Well, I think that’s wonderful,” said Paul Thiboutot, Carleton’s vice president and dean of admissions, with a laugh. “Beyond that, what do I make of it? I don’t know.”

The study by Brookings, a prestigious Washington, D.C., think tank, is said to be the first of its kind to measure what researchers call the “value-added” by individual colleges.

In this case, they used salary and other data, from government and private sources like LinkedIn, to compare the economic success of college graduates based on “institutions with similar characteristics and students.”

Not surprisingly, colleges like Caltech and MIT, with a heavy emphasis on science and engineering, tended to do best.

But Carleton, a private liberal arts school, tied them both, earning a top score when it came to graduates’ future earnings.

By midcareer, Carleton graduates earned on average $117,700, or 43 percent more than would have been expected for graduates of comparable schools, according to the report.

In Fergus Falls, the report found, graduates of Minnesota State Community and Technical College earned on average $59,900, or 13 percent more than similar graduates at midcareer, 10 or more years after college.

So what’s the secret to their success?

“It’s a little hard to dig that far under the hood,” admitted Siddharth Kulkarni, a Brookings researcher who co-authored the report.

He called it the “X Factor.” Meaning: They don’t know.

“It may be the quality of the teaching,” he said. Or the extracurricular activities. Or close ties to the business community. The only thing they know for certain, he said, is that their graduates do better economically than those from similar colleges, with similar students.

Officials at Minnesota State had no comment on the report.

But Thiboutot, of Carleton, said the report reinforces what school officials have always believed: That a Carleton education, priced at $60,100 this year, is a good investment. “There’s certainly a substantial investment in the cost of education,” he said. “We hope we can show there’s a worthwhile return.”

But he said it would be a mistake to judge the value of a college education by salary alone. “That’s only one measure,” he said. There are also the less tangible benefits of a liberal-arts education — the kind of training that can “add value to their lives” and help students make a difference in the world.

And if a bigger salary goes with that, he adds, “that’s terrific.”

The full report, called “Beyond College Rankings: A Value-Added Approach to Assessing Two- and Four-Year Schools,” can be found online at www.brookings.edu.