What to study when your parents are poor and you want to be different

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What should you study at university? What should you study at university if you come from a comparatively low income household and you want to be a high earner? - And where should you go to study it? Not sociology, and not to Edinburgh University in Scotland.

Researchers at the London Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) used data from taxable earnings and student borrowing to look how the subjects students study at UK universities varies by parental income. They also looked at the likelihood that studying a particular subject will propel you into the category of high earners when you graduate. They used this to derive a score of social mobility.

The results are shown in the tables below. High income people are defined as having a median income of £77k ($101k). Low income people are defined as having a median income of £26k.

They found that the most likely UK students to end up with high incomes are male students studying medicine and dentistry, of whom 66% make it into this category. The least likely are female students studying the creative arts, of whom only 6.5% do. Both male and female students studying medicine and dentistry or economics have the greatest chances of becoming high earners, but men are more likely to earn £77k than women in almost every category.

The results suggest that students might not want to pay especial attention to banks when banks insist that studying the humanities is as valuable in earnings terms as studying a STEM subject or economics. Goldman Sachs' CEO David Solomon (bachelors in political science) is a humanities graduate. But if your family is comparatively poor and you want to make money - in banking or elsewhere, some courses give you a higher chance of doing so than others. And they're not sociology or English Lit.

The IFS data also suggests that students from lower income families are actively choosing the wrong courses if they intend to maximize their pay. For example, they're more likely to study 'subjects allied to medicine' than to study medicine itself, even though medicine has far greater chance of leading to a high income. Equally, comparatively few lower income students study economics. Instead, they're more likely to study subjects like the creative arts, which have almost no chance of delivering high compensation. By comparison, children of richer parents choose to study things like economics and medicine and then become rich themselves.

The subject-related results are UK-specific but are very likely to apply globally.

The researchers also looked at the UK universities where students with rich parents study (Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Edinburgh) and at the UK universities that are most likely to propel you into the ranks of high earners when you graduate. As the charts below show, if you come from a poor family and you want to maximize your earning potential, you should study at the London School of Economics - whether you're a man or a you're woman. Conversely, avoid universities miles away from London (like Edinburgh).

[Click in the green area at the top of the charts below to sort each column by value.]

The UK university courses that deliver the highest pay (and are most likely to result in high earnings when you come from a low income family)

The UK universities that deliver the highest pay (and are most likely to result in high earnings when you come from a low income family)

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