The top ten university degrees taken by millionaires

The question of degrees, earnings and careers is a common one. But which subjects did the world's wealthiest individuals take at university, and how did it help them?

Notre Dame.
The campus at Notre Dame University. Photograph: Getty Images.

Is an MBA worth the money? Type this question into Google and the results will provide you with reading enough to last a lifetime. But at a time when tuition fees are spiralling beyond most people’s mortgages, the same question could be asked of any degree. “Are there well paid jobs for art history graduates?”, or, “It is worth learning a language?” are legitimate questions to ask. Choosing a degree, whether post- or undergraduate, is no longer about pursuing what you enjoy. Instead, students are faced with the question: “How do I monetise my degree?”

This question would have many liberal academics choking on their lentils, and it goes without saying that not everyone reads a subject to become a high-flying city banker or wealthy entrepreneur.

But, for those MBA hopefuls or entrepreneurial types, the question remains – which degree is best for becoming wealthy? A study by the wealth consultancy WealthInsight has found the answer: Engineering. By crunching together the academic histories of the world’s millionaires and deducting their most studied subjects, a unique ranking has been produced:

1. Engineering
2. MBA
3. Economics
4. Law
5. (Bachelor's) Business Administration (BBA)
6. Commerce
7. Accounting
8. Computer Science
9. Finance
10. Politics
Note: This list is a combination of both graduate and undergraduate degrees.

The obvious degrees are all here: MBA, economics, law, accounting and so on. Interestingly, though, few of these degrees turn out to be vocational - most engineering graduates, for example, are not engineers but entrepreneurs. The same goes for most law and politics graduates, who owe their fortunes, not to practicing their professions, but climbing the ranks of the financial sector.

With the rise of the tech industry, it is interesting that computer science – a formally overlooked discipline – is on the top 10 list. In future years, as more and more tech entrepreneurs make it big, and undergraduates aim to imitate the successes of Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey, it will probably move further up the list.

MBA or School of Life?

So, is an MBA worth the money? Anecdotal evidence is in no short supply: MBA sceptics frequently quote Richard Branson, the dyslexic school dropout, or Bill Gates who left Harvard because he was more interested in tinkering with computers than studying. However, MBAs are gaining popularity and most top City jobs require one. 

WealthInsight’s research found that 12.8 per cent of the studied millionaires have an MBA, whereas just over 1 per cent did not attend, or dropped out of university. For those Branson supporters, it is interesting to note that 4.5 per cent more millionaires have a PhD than no degree at all.

However, that is not the end of the story. Looking at what these MBA graduate and drop outs did afterwards throws up some interesting conclusions: MBA graduates were more likely to end up earning a salary in a financial firm, while most of those who did not attend, or dropped out of university, became entrepreneurs, mostly in the media sector. The most popular degrees among millionaires at postgraduate level are as follows:

1. MBA
2. Law
3. Engineering
4. Economics
5. Finance
6. Management
7. Computer Science
8. Medicine
9. Accounting
10. Mathematics

“Transferable skills” is one of those nouveau corporate terms that interviewees fear and recruiters abuse, but can it be applicable when it comes to asking how one monetises a degree. Certainly there is a theme that can be plucked from all this: learning numbers at university is useful for amassing a personal fortune. That is why the sciences dominate the top 10 subjects studied. But don’t despair if your undergraduate is in art history and not accounting. Further down WealthInsight’s list are all the humanities: art, English, archaeology, architecture and so on.

While some of the world’s best-paid jobs require MBAs, remember that most of the world’s most wealthy individuals are entrepreneurs. Whether or not anthropology teaches the “transferable skills” that an investment bank requires is a matter for debate, but the subject is certainly no hindrance for those with a business idea.