What the Top 1% of Earners Majored In

We got an interesting question from an academic adviser at a Texas university: could we tell what the top 1 percent of earners majored in?

The writer, sly dog, was probably trying to make a point, because he wrote from a biology department, and it turns out that biology majors make up nearly 7 percent of college graduates who live in households in the top 1 percent.

According to the Census Bureau's 2010 American Community Survey, the majors that give you the best chance of reaching the 1 percent are pre-med, economics, biochemistry, zoology and, yes, biology, in that order.

Below is a chart showing the majors most likely to get into the 1 percent (excluding majors held by fewer than 50,000 people in 2010 census data). The third column shows the percentage of degree holders with that major who make it into the 1 percent. The fourth column shows the percent of the 1 percent (among college grads) that hold that major. In other words, more than one in 10 people with a pre-med degree make it into the 1 percent, and about 1 in 100 of the 1 percenters with degrees majored in pre-med.

If course, choice of major is not the only way to increase your chances of reaching the 1 percent, if that is your goal. There is also the sector you choose.

A separate analysis of census data on occupations showed that one in eight lawyers, for example, are in the 1 percent -- unless they work for a Wall Street firm, when their chances increase to one in three. Among chief executives, fewer than one in five rank among the 1 percent, but their chances increase if the company produces medical supplies (one in four) or drugs (two in five). Hollywood writers? One in nine are 1 percenters. Television or radio writers? One in 14. Newspaper writers and editors? One in 62.


Undergraduate Degree / Total / % Who Are 1 Percenters / Share of All 1 Percenters
Health and Medical Preparatory Programs 142,345 11.8% 0.9%
Economics 1,237,863 8.2% 5.4%
Biochemical Sciences 193,769 7.2% 0.7%
Zoology 159,935 6.9% 0.6%
Biology 1,864,666 6.7% 6.6%
International Relations 146,781 6.7% 0.5%
Political Science and Government 1,427,224 6.2% 4.7%
Physiology 98,181 6.0% 0.3%
Art History and Criticism 137,357 5.9% 0.4%
Chemistry 780,783 5.7% 2.4%
Molecular Biology 64,951 5.6% 0.2%
Area, Ethnic and Civilization Studies 184,906 5.2% 0.5%
Finance 1,071,812 4.8% 2.7%
History 1,351,368 4.7% 3.3%
Business Economics 108,146 4.6% 0.3%
Miscellaneous Psychology 61,257 4.3% 0.1%
Philosophy and Religious Studies 448,095 4.3% 1.0%
Microbiology 147,954 4.2% 0.3%
Chemical Engineering 347,959 4.1% 0.8%
Physics 346,455 4.1% 0.7%
Pharmacy, Pharmaceutical Sciences and Administration 334,016 3.9% 0.7%
Accounting 2,296,601 3.9% 4.7%
Mathematics 840,137 3.9% 1.7%
English Language and Literature 1,938,988 3.8% 3.8%
Miscellaneous Biology 52,895 3.7% 0.1%

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