04/20/2012 09:02 am ET

Wage Inequality Between College Majors Is Growing

If you worry that you may make the same meager inflation-adjusted salary forever, you may want to consider going back to school and getting a different degree.

The premium on a good education is rising, according to the Wall Street Journal. That's because demand for workers in areas requiring math and science training is growing at a faster pace than the supply of those employees, so employers are willing to pay higher wages to hire and retain those workers.

As a result, wage inequality between college majors is growing. The median salary of math, science, and computer science majors' first jobs rose 5 times as quickly as the median salary of humanities and science majors' first jobs in 2012, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

And workers that start out at a lower salary will likely be making less money for the rest of their lives. Workers that majored in math, economics, biology, and engineering make between $40 and $51 per hour on average in 2012, according to a separate Wall Street Journal report that analyzes a recent economics paper by Yale University economists. Workers that majored in nearly anything else make less than $40 per hour on average. For example, economics graduates make twice as much as social work graduates on average.

But choosing one of those lower-paying majors is better than not going to college at all. The unemployment rate for high school graduates between the ages of 16 and 24 that were not in college was 33.6 percent in October: 1.5 times more than the 22.4 percent unemployment rate for full-time college students, according to Labor Department data released on Thursday. The unemployment rate for Americans older than age 24 with a bachelor's degree or higher education is just 4.2 percent: about half the 8.0 percent unemployment rate of high school graduates in the same age range.

A specialized education may be one of the only ways to climb substantially up the wage ladder. Wage inequality has spiked during the economic recovery, continuing a decades-long trend, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of Labor Department data. The wages of the top 10 percent of workers are rising three times as quickly as everyone else's wages. During the recovery, the wages of the top 10 percent of workers rose 7 percent, while the wages of the bottom 90 percent of workers rose just 2.5 percent.

The top 10 percent of workers earned an average $1,858 per week, according to Labor Department data released Tuesday: five times more than the average $360 for the bottom 10 percent of workers. For the top 10 percent of workers, that adds up to an average $96,616 per year, in contrast to an average $18,720 per year for the bottom 10 percent (near the poverty line for a family of three).

Check out the 10 college majors that will make you the richest, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research:

10 highest paying majors(CLONED)