The gap between the earning power of people who leave school with just GCSEs and those who go on to get A-levels has doubled in the past year, official figures show.
People with A-levels as their highest qualifications earned an average of pound;10.27 per hour in 2003 in England, compared to the pound;9.02 paid to those with only GCSEs or equivalent.
The figures published by the Department for Education and Skills reveal a growing labour market divide between the educational haves and have-nots.
While those educated to degree and A-level standard saw their pay increase, life is getting harder for many of those on the lowest rungs of the qualifications ladder. Earnings of people qualified to GCSE level (national vocational qualification level 2) fell from pound;9.20 in 2002, while the pay of those with qualifications below level 2 dropped from pound;8.60 to pound;8.47.
Employees with no qualifications earn an average of just pound;7.44 per hour, an increase of 50p since 2002.
Only people with degrees (pound;15.01) can expect to earn more than the pound;11.01 average rate. They earn an average of 46 per cent more than those with just A-levels, the highest return for an additional qualification level.
Graduates' higher earning potential has been cited by ministers as a reason to allow universities to charge higher fees. John Bangs, the National Union of Teachers' head of education, called on the Government to use the difference in earnings to persuade young people to stay-on in education.
"It is enormously frustrating for teachers to see young people with latent talent disappear at 16.
"This sends an unequivocal message about the need for further qualifications. It also shows the success of schools in raising standards has raised employers' expectations."
A Department for Education and Skills spokeswoman said: "The data highlights the very powerful link between qualifications and full-time earnings. At every level of qualification there is a clear benefit from moving up the skills ladder in terms of significantly increased wages."
Only 51.8 per cent of 19-year-olds are qualified to A-level standards (level 3) or above and a quarter do not even have level 2 qualifications.
The Government has set a target of 55 per cent of 19-year-olds to reach level 3 by 2004.
The level of highest qualification held by young people and adults: England 2003 is available at www.dfes.gov.ukstatistics