The data are important considering the high cost of a college degree and the significant loan burdens taken on by some students to obtain one, Carnevale said.

“We don’t have a system in the United States where we align what you take with career prospects,” Carnevale said. “Nobody ever tells you when you go to college what happened to the other people who took it before you.”

The researchers’ longitudinal look at lifetime earnings seems to echo a more short-term analysis of the job market by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

The Bethlehem, Pa.-based group reports that engineering majors account for seven of the top 10 highest-paying majors for the class of 2011. The other three are computer science, information science, and business systems networking/telecommunications.

Chemical engineering heads the list with an average salary offer of nearly $67,000, according the group’s spring survey.

Still, Rachel Brown, director of the career center at Temple University in Philadelphia, noted that the average person changes careers three to five times in a lifetime. And while median salary is certainly something students should be aware of, it shouldn’t be the deciding factor, she said.

“Take that into consideration, but look at the whole picture,” Brown said. “What are you doing every day? What are the job responsibilities? What are the values of the occupation in general? Advancement potential?”