By James Kwak
XKCD (blacked out until tomorrow).
Economix has a table listing undergraduate majors by the percentage of graduates in each major that are in the “1 percent” (by income, which I think is less important than by wealth). The data are interesting, but I don’t think it’s correct to say that “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.”
All of the pre-med/life sciences majors (numbers 1, 3, 5, 8, and 11 on the list) do arguably increase your chances of making the 1% because they help you become a doctor, and many specialists are in the 1%. Of course, since many science majors are considered more difficult by undergraduates, you could argue that the inherent traits people bring to college are just as important as the majors they choose. Economics is #2, but that’s in part because many of the people who want to be in the 1 percent major in economics.
But the interesting cases are art history (#9), area studies (#12), history (#14), and philosophy (#17), all of which are disproportionately represented in the 1%. (History, for example, ranks right behind finance.) I don’t think anyone would argue that knowledge of art history is likely to earn you a high income; there just aren’t that many executives at Sotheby’s and Christie’s. I think what’s going on is that these are the kinds of things that people study at elite schools—in particular, if you’re not that worried about what you’re going to do after graduation. These are not the things that most people at normal schools study. In 2009, for example, art history didn’t even show up on the list of majors (it’s probably tucked into “liberal arts and sciences, general studies, and humanities,” which came in 11th), area studies was one of the least popular majors, and so was philosophy.
So there are two possible reasons why these people make the top 1 percent. One is that they are talented, hardworking people who succeed (financially) despite what they majored in—but then why are talented, hardworking people overrepresented in these majors? The other is that they are children of the elite who go to elite schools, study whatever they feel like, and succeed because of their upbringing and connections. (The reasons are not mutually exclusive.) Given the increasing evidence that America, the land of opportunity, is actually one of limited social mobility, I think we can’t overlook the latter explanation.