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It's back to business at colleges across the country — but not for the nation's most recent graduates. More than 40 percent of them are unemployed and many are loaded with student debt. Small wonder, then, that some question whether a college education is really worth the time and money.

The answer is: Yes, depending on which major a student chooses. PayScale, an online provider of compensation data, recently tracked the academic disciplines that offer the greatest salary potential both in the short and long term. Here's a closer look at the most lucrative job titles and salaries, based on annual pay of bachelor's degree holders without higher degrees and grads who typically have two years' experience when they start.

The Meal Ticket: Engineer

Given the planet’s growing need for energy, the expanding population of global travelers and the speed at which information technology is spreading in the industrial and developing worlds, engineers with highly specialized skills are in high demand. Engineering makes up six of the 10 top-earning degrees (and 12 of the top 20).

  • (No. 1) Petroleum engineering: starting salary $98,000, mid-career salary $163,000
  • (No. 2) Aerospace engineering: starting salary $62,500, mid-career salary $118,000
  • (No. 4) Chemical engineering: starting salary $67,500, mid-career salary $111,000
  • (No. 5) Nuclear engineering: starting salary $66,800, mid-career salary $107,000
  • (No. 6) Electrical engineering: starting salary $63,400, mid-career salary $106,000
  • (No. 7) Computer engineering: starting salary $62,700, mid-career salary $105,000

All About Numbers

The major that edged out chemical engineering to land the No. 3 spot on the list: actuarial mathematics, with a starting salary of $56,100 and a mid-career salary of $112,000. Applied mathematics also scores high, coming in at No. 8 with a starting salary of $50,800 and a mid-career salary of $102,000. No. 10 is statistics, with a starting salary of $49,300 and a mid-career salary $99,500.

Actuaries use mathematical, statistical, financial and economic theory to solve real business problems. Many actuaries work for insurance markets and predict, for instance, the frequency and intensity of earthquakes or hurricanes for purposes of setting policy rates. Actuaries also work in the consulting, accounting, government, and financial services areas. 

Applied mathematics, on the other hand, is more concerned with mathematical methods, which can lead to careers in science, engineering and general business. Statisticians typically work for federal, state or local governments or private companies.

Help Wanted: Gadget Hounds

Another hot commodity: computer science majors. They've been in demand since the dawn of the personal computer era, but their value has skyrocketed as the number of smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices worldwide has exploded. Future advances in industrial, medical and research methods depend on the know-how of computer scientists. Ranked No. 9 on the PayScale list, computer science majors can expect to start at $58,400 and reach a mid-career salary of $100,000.

The Missing Ingredient

The left-brained crowd clearly has the lead when it comes to earning potential, but that doesn't mean right-brained folks are destined to pinch pennies. International relations, advertising and film production, for example, appear in the top 50 majors on the PayScale list, with international relations leading the group at a starting salary of $40,600 and median salary of $93,000 (although, to be fair, liberal arts and other more creative-oriented majors dominate the list's bottom 50).

Two important points about the PayScale ranking: it doesn't distinguish between the salaries a computer scientist can hope to earn in Silicon Valley versus one who lives in Alaska. Nor does it factor in the role of good old-fashioned hard work. Yet what it does well is set expectations for today's youth (and help older generations come to terms with their youthful decisions).

 

Photo credit: Can Stock