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Starting pay in biomedical engineering is $53,800. Openings are expected to grow more than 60 percent.
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updated 5/22/2012 7:42:16 AM ET 2012-05-22T11:42:16

With rising tuition costs and a rapidly changing job landscape, a student’s college major is more important than ever. It can either set you up for lifetime career success and high earnings or sink you into debt with few avenues to get ahead of it.

“Unless you go to a top-20 brand name school, what matters most to employers is your major,” says Katie Bardaro, lead economist at compensation research firm PayScale. In fact, in a new report by Gen-Y researcher Millennial Branding, a full 69 percent of managers agreed that relevant coursework is important when considering job candidates.

So which college majors are most likely to land you a well-paying job right out of school? Analysts at PayScale compared its massive compensation database with 120 college majors and job growth projections through 2020 from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to determine the 15 most valuable majors in the current marketplace. Ranked by median starting pay, median mid-career pay (at least 10 years in), growth in salary and wealth of job opportunities, engineering and math reigned supreme.

Forbes.com slideshow: 15 most valuable college majors

At No. 1, biomedical engineering is the major that is most worth your tuition, time and effort. Biomedical engineers earn a median starting salary of $53,800, which grows an average of 82 percent to $97,800 by mid-career. Moreover, the BLS projects a whopping 61.7 percent growth of job opportunities in the field — the most of any other major on the list.

Engineering concentrations comprise one third of the most valuable majors. Software engineering majors (No. 4) earn a median of $87,800 after 10 years on the job; environmental engineering majors (No. 5) earn a median of $88,600; civil engineering majors (No. 6) earn a median of $90,200; and petroleum engineering majors (No. 9) earn a median of $155,000—the highest paycheck on the list.

“These aren’t majors that anyone could do. They’re hard, and these programs weed people out,” says Bardaro. “However, there is high demand for them and a low supply of people with the skills, so it drives up the labor market price.”

Forbes.com: Billionaires' advice for new college grads

In the Millennial Branding survey, employers reported engineering and computer information systems majors as their top recruits. Also, nearly half of these employers (47 percent) said the competition for new science, technology, engineering and math talent is steep. That means while other recent grads fight for jobs, these students will likely field multiple offers.

Math and science concentrations are also well-represented on this list. Biochemistry (No. 2), computer science (No. 3), applied mathematics (No. 10), mathematics (No. 11), physics (No. 14) and statistics (No. 15) majors are increasingly in demand and well-paid.

Bardaro believes that the new data-driven market makes math skills, particularly statistics, more and more valuable to employers. Many companies now collect large datasets on consumer behavior, be it online search patterns or user demographics. Statisticians who understand data and can use it to forecast trends and behavior will do especially well, she says.

Conversely, the worst-paying college majors are child and family studies, elementary education, social work, culinary arts, special education, recreation and leisure studies, religious studies, and athletic training.

Forbes.com: The top majors for the class of 2022
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Forbes.com: The 15 best jobs for young people
Forbes.com: The 20 job rules for Millenials

© 2012 Forbes.com

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