October 20, 2017
For this year’s Forbes 400, we asked the nation’s richest what they majored in as undergraduates and heard from about 290 of them.There were some 80 different majors reported, with the biggest number – 45 – responding that they had majored in economics, followed by 42 list members with degrees in business administration (which was the top major for the U.S. population in 2015).TD Ameritrade cofounder Joe Ricketts, who studied economics at Creighton University, describes his first economics class as a life-changing experience – one in which a light bulb went off and then everything in his life made sense. Other high profile billionaires who were economics majors include the New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft (at Columbia), Citadel founder Ken Griffin (Harvard), and Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s CEO Meg Whitman (Princeton).
The 45 who studied economics went to 29 different schools, from Chapman University to Johns Hopkins. Thanks to its Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania conferred the most bachelor’s degrees in economics to this year’s Forbes 400 class. Nine billionaires including President Donald Trump, Laurene Powell Jobs, and hedge fund manager Steve Cohen studied economics at UPenn. (UPenn also happens to be the school that graduated the most members – 18 – of The Forbes 400). Amherst College, Dartmouth College, Duke University, Stanford, and Southern Methodist University trailed UPenn, giving out economics degrees to two billionaires each.The fact that economics majors dominate the ranks of the 400 richest Americans is not really surprising, according to Sara Ellison, a senior lecturer in the MIT Economics Department. “Students have chosen economics because they have a curiosity about the way the world works,” Ellison says, a curiosity that makes people develop new systems and contribute to existing firms. “This is often the profile of the very most successful people.”
“Students who choose to study and major in economics gain an important skillset, discipline in thinking and knowledge, which helps them become better decisionmakers,” says Lidija Polutnik, the chair of the economics department at Babson College, where billionaires Peter Kellogg and C. Dean Metropoulos studied business administration.“It is not only a question on how to make money,” concurs Professor Nicholas Economides from NYU. “It is understanding the structures that create profitable opportunities.”Of course, not all Forbes 400 members chose to study the science of money. Eighteen billionaires were more interested in what came before it, choosing to major in history, the third most popular major for The Forbes 400. Among them were real estate magnate (and former L.A. Clippers owner) Donald Sterling, U-Haul heir Joe Shoen and software firm SAS cofounder John Sall.“Past performance is nonetheless one of the best indicators we have about how the future might unfold,” says Seth Rockman, an associate professor of history at Brown University. “Business people grasp this intuitively, whether they track a price series over a decade, look at a 52-week high, or consider the different ways that human societies across time and space have enforced contracts or regulated transactions.”

Other popular choices included electrical engineering (17 Forbes 400 members), mathematics (13), and English (11). Others majors ranged from drama and Japanese literature to religion and recreation and leisure studies, proving that while certain majors might help, there is no one surefire course of study.