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Majors That Yield Top 1% Earners in U.S.

by Nicole Leonard | Boston University

F Posted in: College P Posted on: January 25, 2012
studying Image courtesy of Flickr, user Treehugger.

Recently, Americans have been speaking out against the top earners on Wall Street in order to raise awareness of the widening gap between the top 1% of earners in the country and the other 99%. Statistics on how 1%-ers climb the income bracket ladder have been few and far between. While the top earners in the U.S. possess many different job titles and work in varying industries, the question of what educational backgrounds these men and women hold has just recently been answered.

The New York Times published a list of majors in mid-January that represented the undergraduate paths that would most likely result in the top 1% salaries. These findings were based on the Census Bureau’s 2010 American Community Survey. According to the list, someone has the best chance of getting into the 1% if they major in pre-medicine, economics, biochemistry, zoology, or biology.

A separate analysis of the data revealed that 1 in 8 lawyers are in the 1%, where their chances increase to 1 in 3 if they work for a firm on Wall Street. Similarly, 1 in 9 Hollywood writers are one-percenters, while television and radio writers make up 1 in 14 of this contingent. Also, newspaper writers and editors have 1 in 62 people in the top 1% of earners in the country.

The chart may provide some excitement to those with majors at the top of the list, and therefore the best chances at becoming one of the nation’s top earners. However, many undergraduate students with these majors say that getting into the top 1% is not their ultimate goal.

Boston University pre-medicine student Melissa Yee was initially surprised at the majors that made the list. She explained that while she chose her major despite what future income she might make, she understands how someone with her major could reach the top 1%. She says, “Being pre-medicine, pre-law. . . It’s cutthroat. You have to have this drive to want to do what you want in your field, but you also have to want to make money.”

Many students agree that in choosing their major they did not solely seek large incomes. Tina Novelli, a double major in economics and secondary education at the University of Notre Dame, explains that her major in economics is useful for her to have as a background for future endeavors in public policy.  She says, “Here at Notre Dame, economics is a popular major for business majors to double in, and there’s no doubt that it’s so they all become top earners.” Yee agrees and says that “if I wanted to get rich or be in the top 1%, I would have majored in business.”

Students like Kathryn Nicolich enforce the idea that the passion for the material within a major overrides any desire to make a lot of money. As a physics major at Bucknell University, she comments that “no one studies physics because they think they will strike it rich. The major is too difficult to encourage that type of student to continue along that path.”

As a political science major at Boston University, Chris Towner realizes that his chances of getting into the top 1% are very high, according to the numbers on the chart. However, he agrees with students like Nicolich and says, “I chose political science because it is what interests me the most, and I feel like I should take courses in college that interest me rather than what will get me ahead in life.” Towner places an emphasis on his enjoyment of what he is doing over that of wanting to be a top earner.

On the flip side, while students heatedly deny that the influence of current events and the pressure of being in the top 1% of the country do not affect their choices in majors, some with majors on the list admit that it can be comforting knowing they have the possibility of getting there.

Renate Fessler, a Boston University international relations major, says, “My first intention was not about the money. The fact that it could be a possibility is like having a perk. It makes me feel even more assured that IR is a good major to have.” Nicolich agrees, saying, “The chance to become a top 1% earner is just a nice bonus.”

In the end, college students today seem to be less enamored with the possibility of getting into the top 1% and rather value their choice in major based on what they are interested in learning at the moment. As Towner explains, “Employers are looking for smart workers. In order to get to be one of the ’1%,’ it requires a lot more than what you studied in college as an undergrad.” At the current moment, it seems that college undergrads have different priorities at the top of their lists.

Nicole Leonard Nicole Leonard Nicole is a sophomore at Boston University, where she is studying journalism and psychology.

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