College Degrees of the 1%

A great deal of our attention has turned to the 1%. And there's a very good reason why. This is a group made of people who hold a great deal of capital and power, with income levels exceeding $400,000 per year. As such, they also control the vast majority of the world's wealth. Some people are born into the 1% through an inheritance. Others join this elite group of people through post-secondary education. Of course, a person's income is influenced by more than just their college major. The industry an individual chooses to go into, the careers they pursue, and their ability to adapt on the fly, learn new skills, and take on new responsibilities are all central to one's compensation. Nevertheless, these majors offer a promising start. This article looks at some of the college majors outlined by The Hamilton Project that help propel people into the 1%.

Key Takeaways

  • Earning a degree in a top field can help propel you into the 1%.
  • Engineers are among the top earners, with chemical engineers reaching a median career salary of $2.2 million.
  • Computer scientists are able to make as much as $122,840 per year.
  • Some degrees in the health and medical preparatory fields can earn professionals a median annual salary of $113,000.
  • Professionals with undergraduate degrees in finance and economics can boost their earning potential by pursuing an MBA as well.


Engineering is a broad discipline with a lot of applications. Despite this, you're likely to be well-compensated for your work regardless of which branch you choose to go into when compared to people with other degrees.

The Hamilton Project ranks the following engineering disciplines in order based on the highest median lifetime earnings of any given major:

  • chemical
  • aerospace
  • energy and extraction (petroleum)
  • computer
  • electrical
  • mechanical
  • civil
  • industrial manufacturing

According to the organization's research, the median career salary for chemical engineers was as much as $2.2 million, while industrial engineers netted as much as $1.7 million during the same period. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) also provides statistics on salaries and job outlook. According to the BLS, the median salary for chemical engineers in 2019 was $108,770 per year while industrial engineers made an average of $88,020 annually. The job outlook for both fields was 6% and 8% respectively.

Remember, your college major alone won't get you into the 1%—your experience, career path, and responsibilities also factor into how you're compensated.

Computer Science 

People who graduate with a computer science degree solve issues and problems that are often complex using technology. They create and develop software and applications for computers, mobile phones, and other devices, and also develop websites. Computer scientists can find employment with governments, nonprofit organizations, tech companies, and even startups.

According to the Hamilton Project, the median career earning for an individual with an undergraduate degree in computer science was about $1.6 to $1.7 million. These professionals fall under the computer and information research scientist category under the BLS, which lists the median annual income at $122,840 as of 2019. The job outlook between 2018 and 2028 for this field is 16%—much faster than the average for all careers.


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Health and Medical Preparation

This is a fairly broad category that includes degrees in pharmaceutical sciences and administration as well as medical preparatory degrees like pre-med and biology. The overall financial success of the individual depends on what career path they choose after they graduate from school.

A degree in pharmaceutical sciences and administration may land you a median salary of $113,000. Of course, this does not account for the time and money associated with going to medical school, nor does it include the cost of malpractice insurance and other related expenses.

Finance and Economics

People with degrees in finance and economics will largely be employed by financial firms, consulting firms, insurance companies, and the government. Finance majors stand to earn as much as $1.6 million in their careers, at the median of wage-earners holding the degree. Those with an undergraduate degree in economics tend to do well, but having a master of business administration (MBA) in finance and economics can open more doors. According to PayScale, people who have this degree can earn as more than $113,000 annually.

The Bottom Line

Some degrees offer better chances of becoming a top earner—many of which have a few common characteristics including the cost of education, a specialization of knowledge, and the ability to pursue professional designations. Being able to pursue a post-secondary education helps guide students into the 1% by providing many different opportunities in highly-skilled work. But remember, a major isn't everything, and it certainly isn't fate. Graduates should focus on selling practical skills along with their degrees, rather than relying on their educational experience alone.