Higher education can be your path to riches, but only if you choose your major carefully. If you don’t, an undergraduate or postgraduate degree will earn you only as much as a high-school diploma. Not all majors are created equal.
But what makes one “rich,” what salary or income one should earn to deserve that tag, is a highly subjective discussion. Do you have to be outrageously wealthy—there are over 2,200 billionaires in the world, according to Forbes—or do you have to be only comfortably well-heeled to afford most of your whims and fancies?
Whatever it is, a good education seems to be behind great wealth in a large majority of cases. So, first, we take a look at the degrees pursued by those who eventually made billions, at least some of them because of their degrees.
In a survey of billionaires in the 2018 Forbes 400 list, the largest number majored in economics (45), followed by business administration (42). Of the 45 economics graduates, nine, including President Donald Trump, earned their degrees from the University of Pennsylvania.
This leads us to the question, is there a correlation between riches and a degree in economics/businesses?
Education experts point out that students who choose these subjects do so because they are curious about the way the world works, and this curiosity makes them invent and put in place new, more profitable systems.
Studying economics/business imparts discipline in thinking and knowledge, an essential ingredient in any formula for success.
After economics and business administration, the third most popular major among Forbes 400 was history, with 18 of the top billionaires choosing it. Other popular majors included electrical engineering (17 of Forbes 400), mathematics (13), and English (11).
What about graduate degrees? Forty percent of Forbes 400 went for them. The most popular was, unsurprisingly, MBA, with 72 of the top billionaires earning it, including 26 from Harvard Business School and 23 from Stanford GSB.
MBAs on Forbes 400 include Philip Knight (Rank 28, $29.6 billion), Jorge Paulo Lemann (29, $27.4 billion), Suzanne Klatten (32, $25 billion), Peter Woo (122, $12.2 billion), Kumar Mangalam Birla (127, $11.8 billion), and Ronald Perelman (152, $9.8 billion).
Forbes 400 also contains 45 college dropouts, including Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. As many as 84 percent of Fortune 400 held a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with just 33 percent of all Americans with that degree. Twenty-three percent of these super-rich got their degrees from Ivy League schools.
Best degree to get rich
In an analysis of the 2018 Forbes 100 list of billionaires, a recruitment agency, Aaron Wallis, found that 75 of the top rich had a four-year degree, and of those who graduated, 22 had degrees in engineering, 16 in business, and 11 in finance, six in law, four in computer science, three in art/history of art, two each in philosophy, politics, English, history, and mathematics, one each in medicine, physics, and psychology.
Thirty of the top 100 either inherited or worked for their family business, and 17 started their own company.
Four of these top billionaires studied computer science/engineering, including Rank 1 Jeff Bezos (bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science; net worth $112 billion) and Rank 12 Larry Page (computer engineering at the University of Michigan and computer science at Stanford; net worth $48.8 billion). Charles and David Koch both studied chemical engineering. Michael Bloomberg graduated in electrical engineering.
What about millionaires? Only 20 percent of the world’s millionaires have inherited their wealth. Others apparently joined college and slogged it out, though we realize that inherited resources such as a company don’t sustain just by itself, and that it takes toil and talent. So what majors did these millionaires choose?
Obviously, their choice could not have been much different from that of the world’s top billionaires, and it isn’t. Engineering is one of the most common degrees.
Among engineering majors, chemical, mechanical, civil, electrical, aerospace, biochemical, computer, and architectural engineering were the most popular choices. Economics and business degrees, including MBA, finance, accounting, and law, are the next most common.
We just had to ask: Where did these millionaires go to college? Wealth-X, which conducts research on high-net-worth individuals, found where people with over $30 million went to college: Harvard University had produced 1,906 millionaires (with a combined net worth of $811 billion), UPenn 832, Columbia University 578, New York University 488, Stanford University 466, MIT 375, University of Chicago 371, Northwestern University 365, Yale University 360, and Princeton University 330.
Those were the top ten. Making up ranks 11 to 20 were Cornell University, the Universities of Virginia, Southern California, Texas (Austin), California (Berkeley), Notre Dame, Michigan, and Cambridge, Boston University, and the University of California (LA).
Majors and salaries
What about ordinary folk, students who have to practically start from scratch, perhaps also repay their loans, before they embark on their journey to lives of comfort or even luxury? What majors should they choose to “make bank,” as they say.
Salary.com has compiled information on what degrees could earn graduates a few millions in their careers: a math degree, with job titles such as operations research analysis managers, brings a median salary of $70,000 with 30-year earnings of $8.6 million); IT (IT manager, $108,000, $6.3 million); human resources (recruiting manager, $89,000, $5.2 million); economics (investment operations manager, $143,000, $8.4 million); biology (laboratory manager, $85,000, $5 million); engineering (electrical engineering supervisor, $92,000, $5.4 million); marketing (product/brand manager, $92,000, $5.4 million), and English (communications manager, $88,000, $5.2 million).
Top degrees in USA
According to a QS Top Universities analysis, supported by data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salaries are the highest for graduates with the following degrees in the US (with job titles and salaries in parentheses):
Accounting (actuaries: $101,000)
Architecture (architecture/engineering managers: $135,000)
Art and design (producers and directors: $71,000; multimedia artists and animators: $65,000)
Business and management (management analysts: $81,000)
Computer science and IT (computer and information research scientists: $112,000; software developers: $102,000; aerospace engineers: $110,000)
Engineering (petroleum engineers: $128,000; computer hardware engineers: $115,000; aerospace engineers: $110,000; nuclear engineers: $102,000)
Law (lawyers: $118,000; judges and hearing officers: $110,000)
Media and communications (writers and editors: $61,000)
Medicine and life sciences (physicians and surgeons: $208,000; dentists: $160,000)
Natural sciences (geoscientists: $89,000; chemists and material scientists: $75,000)
Degrees with top earning potential in the US
|Degree||Job title||Average annual salary|
|Architecture||Architecture /engineering manager||$135,000|
|Computer science and IT||Computer and information research scientist||$112,000|
|Medicine and life sciences||Physician/surgeon||$208,000|
Credit: QS Top Universities; Bureau of Labor Statistics
Top degrees in the UK
QS also lists degree-salary data in the UK based on Payscale research. The average annual salaries are the highest for graduates with the following degrees in the UK:
Accounting (actuaries: £52,000)
Architecture (architects, not landscape or naval: £31,000)
Art and design (artists: £29,000, Glassdoor data)
Business and management (chief executives and senior officials: £92,000; project management directors: £72,000)
Computer science and IT (IT directors: £76,000; software development managers: £52,000; IT project managers £53,000)
Engineering (design engineering managers: £50,000; mining engineers: £40,000)
Law (law firm partner: £69,000; barrister: £53,000; attorney/lawyer: £50,000)
Media and communications (public relations director: £70,000; creative directors: £49,000)
Medicine and life sciences (general practice doctors: £51,000; dentists: £49,000)
Natural sciences (geoscientists, not hydrologists/geographers: £35,000; research scientists: 30,000)
In the UK, graduates who have degrees in high-demand majors pull away from the crowd sooner rather than later.
For example, by the time they are in their 30s, 10 percent of law, economics, and management graduates from LSE draw more than £300,000.
But there’s a gender gap, with male graduates earning 8 percent more than women right at the start, and the inequality only worsens by the fifth year of careers to 14 percent.
Graduates of the London School of Economics, Imperial College London, and the University of Oxford earn over £40,000 five years after graduation. Russell University graduates earn £33,500 five years after leaving college, 40 percent more than their counterparts from other universities.
The STEM advantage
Degrees in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) are a good path to comfortable wealth, reports US News.
For example, petroleum engineering graduates find a job right after college and earn a median mid-career salary of around $130,000. Salaries tend to grow for STEM graduates, whereas it remains stagnant for social service and teaching graduates.
Among engineering disciplines, the mean annual salary is highest for computer engineering graduates, about $115,000, which is to be expected in today’s technology-driven world. Other well-paying engineering streams include mining engineering ($108,000), electrical engineering ($97,000), and civil engineering ($88,000).
For followers of traditional career paths, mining engineering is the among the best, as the top 10 percent draw nearly $181,000, more than the other engineering graduates, once they make their way to the top of their organizations over the years.
The Millennial Magazine rates engineering as the top undergrad degree that has the potential to make you “filthy rich.”
Engineering graduates earn the highest average starting salaries of over $60,000 and can go into almost any industry sector or company. Computer science comes next, with an average starting salary of up to $60,000 in the first year after graduation. Accounting follows. As for graduate degrees, MBA is listed on the top, and adds $45,000 to salaries.
If your choice is not engineering or another STEM major, you should try to ensure that your college degree course is related to the economy or money, so that you can land a job on Wall Street, for example.
The most popular major among US college students is not a STEM degree but a business degree, according to the US Department of Education. But starting salaries vary wide for business graduates, from $43,000 to $98,000.
A graduate who has learned finance and has acquired analytical and mathematical skills earns more than a business management grad. So does a graduate who has learned statistics or economics, again, thanks to their analytical skills. Quite ironically, at the bottom of salaries are majors that bring a societal benefit, such as education.
Less toil, higher reward
After considering the aches and pains of having to complete studies in engineering, finance, or business to earn lucrative qualifications, at least some students may wonder if there is an easy way to get a degree that will bring in top moolah without shedding too much blood, sweat, and tears.
Thetab.com, using salary data from Payscale and data on student working hours from the National Survey of Students Engagement, analyzed the best majors that put the least pressure in college but doles out the biggest bucks after graduation.
It found that STEM majors, again, were the answer: for example, computer science majors worked only over 16 hours a week outside of class time (doing homework, etc.) to earn an average of $90,000 on graduation.
On the other hand, architecture, humanities, and philosophy students worked longer hours in college to earn much lower. Architecture students, for example, worked 22 hours a week outside class hours to earn $67,000.
The Tab ranked business, computer science, finance, computer engineering, agriculture economics, electrical engineering, information sciences, industrial/manufacturing engineering, economics, and marketing as the easiest courses for the largest salaries among 59 majors. The worst? Neuroscience, microbiology, music, finance, and architecture.