Degree subject matters more than university status if you want to become rich, new research shows

News from the UCL Institute of Education. 

Choosing the right field of study is more important than attending an elite university for those aiming to become a top earner by middle age, according to new findings from the UCL Institute of Education.

Researchers analysed data on more than 6,000 people born in England and Wales in a single week in 1970, who are taking part in the 1970 British Cohort Study.

The research looked at who made it into the top 5 per cent of earners at age 42 –those on salaries of around £80,000 or more. They found that, after taking into account a wide range of factors, including school level educational attainment, childhood cognitive scores and social background, there were clear differences in the advantage gained from degrees in different subjects and from different institutions.

Degrees in Law, Economics and Management (LEM) were the most likely tolead to top salaries. A LEM degree from an elite university was the most rewarding of all, with graduates having a 6.5 times greater chance of joining the top 5 per cent of earners compared to non-graduates. But, those who took LEM subjects at a non-elite university still fared very well – they were 4.5 times more likely to become a top earner than those without a degree.

In comparison, those who studied Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths subjects at both elite and normal universities had 3 times the odds, and those who took an Other Social Science, Arts and Humanities (OSSAH) degree at an elite university were 2.6 times more likely to be top earners at age 42. OSSAH degrees from non-elite universities were the least lucrative.

Professor Alice Sullivan, the study’s lead author, said: “Since the beginning of the 1990s, incomes at the very top of British society have drawn further away from the rest of the population. Our study provides new evidence on the role of higher education as a conduit to the most well-paid jobs.

“As higher proportions of the population gain a university degree, we expect advantaged groups to maintain their competitive edge by seeking high status degrees at elite universities. Although elite university degrees are far more academically and socially selective in terms of their intake of students than degrees from non-elite universities, which subject you study matters more for increasing earnings when you compare individuals who had similar exam results and cognitive scores pre-university.”

Women were much less likely than men to be top earners at age 42, even though roughly the same proportion gained degrees, and enjoyed similar levels of educational attainment. Women had a third of the chance of gaining a top salary compared to men, and made up less than a quarter (24%) of the top 5 per cent of earners.

The research also revealed that those who attended fee-paying schools had a much greater chance of being top earners in middle age. Although only 6 per cent had a private education, they made up a quarter of the highest earners at 42. Compared to those who attended state schools, former private school pupils were 1.7 times more likely to be top earners, and those who attended the most exclusive fee-paying schools had almost 3 times the odds of a top salary compared to state school graduates with similar school results and cognitive scores.

“From a policy perspective, it is natural to ask what these findings mean for young people entering higher education today,” said Professor Sullivan. “The 1970 cohort enjoyed free university education and student grants, whereas current students often leave university with considerable debts. They are therefore likely to be more concerned about their future earnings.

“Much attention has been given to promoting access to elite universities for young people from less advantaged backgrounds, but our findings suggest that promoting access to the most lucrative fields of study may have more potential to widen access to high salaried jobs.

“Although these findings could be used to denigrate degrees in the arts, humanities and social sciences, it is important to emphasise that people can prioritise values other than material gain, such as creativity and service to society. And, it should go without saying, the value to society of a graduate’s education is not necessarily reflected in their income.”

NB: While the IOE website undergoes an upgrade, we are posting press releases on the IOE blog

Further information

‘Elite universities, fields of study, and top salaries: which degree will make you rich? By Professor Alice Sullivan, Dr Samantha Parsons, Professor Francis Green, Professor R.D. Wiggins and Professor George Ploubidis is online in the British Educational Research Journal.

For further information please contact:

Ryan Bradshaw – UCL Institute of Education
020 7612 6516

Notes for editors:

  1. The 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS70) is following the lives of more than 17,000 people born in England, Scotland and Wales in a single week of 1970. Since the birth survey in 1970, there have been eight further surveys of all cohort members at ages 5, 10, 16, 26, 30, 34, 38 and 42. The age 46 survey is currently underway. Over the course of cohort members’ lives, BCS70 has collected information on health, physical, educational and social development, and economic circumstances, among other factors. The study is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and managed by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the Department of Social Science, UCL Institute of Education. Further information is available at
  2. Lead author, Alice Sullivan is Professor of Sociology at the UCL Institute of Education and the director of BCS70.
  3. BCS70 members in Scotland were excluded from the research as Scotland’s system of school qualifications differs from that in England and Wales.
  1. The researchers considered elite universities to be those in the Russell Group, a self-selected association of the UK’s 24 leading universities.
  2. The top fee-paying schools included in the study are those reviewed regularly by Tatler, a well-known magazine that serves an especially affluent readership. The Tatler list comprises around 100 schools, mostly with fees in the upper half of the spectrum, including all the most famous schools in England.
  3. The Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS) is a resource centre based at the UCL Institute of Education. Co-authors, Professor Dick Wiggins, of the Department of Quantitative Social Science, and Professor Francis Green, of the Centre for Learning and Life Chances in Knowledge Economies (LLAKES) are partners in the social mobility strand of the Cross-Cohort Research Programme.
  1. The UCL Institute of Education is a world-leading centre for research and teaching in education and social science, ranked number one for education worldwide in the 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 QS World University Rankings.  It was awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize in 2016.  In 2014, the IOE secured ‘outstanding’ grades from Ofsted on every criterion for its initial teacher training, across primary, secondary and further education programmes.  In the most recent Research Excellence Framework assessment of university research, the IOE was top for ‘research power’ (GPA multiplied by the size of the entry) in education.  Founded in 1902, the Institute currently has more than 8,000 students and 800 staff.  In December 2014 it became a single-faculty school of UCL, called the UCL Institute of Education. 
  1. UCL was founded in 1826. We were the first English university established after Oxford and Cambridge, the first to open up university education to those previously excluded from it, and the first to provide systematic teaching of law, architecture and medicine. We are among the world’s top universities, as reflected by performance in a range of international rankings and tables. UCL currently has over 39,000 students from 150 countries and over 12,500 staff. Our annual income is more than £1 billion. | Follow us on Twitter @uclnews | Watch our YouTube channel
  1. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK’s future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policymakers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. The ESRC also works collaboratively with six other UK research councils and Innovate UK to fund cross-disciplinary research and innovation addressing major societal challenges. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government.



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