As a new crop of college students arrive on American campuses this fall, many will be forced to consider whether to major in a more creative, “softer” discipline like English, or begin charting their career path with a “hard” major like business or physics.
While the liberal arts are often bemoaned for offering few post-college job opportunities, the truth is that a great many of our nation’s most successful business executives and political figures spent their undergraduate careers studying things like classics and psychology.
Here are 29 extremely successful people who prove that it’s possible to climb the ladder without a bachelor’s degree in business or science.
Carolyn Cutrone and Max Nisen contributed reporting to this article.
Mitt Romney acquired a multimillion dollar fortune running private equity firm Bain Capital. His success in business was a popular selling point during his 2012 presidential campaign.
But he didn't get that background from an undergraduate degree. He actually graduated from Brigham Young University with a B.A. in English before going on to Harvard to get his M.B.A. and J.D.
Despite his well-publicised criticism of higher education, Thiel got his undergraduate degree in 20th Century Philosophy at Stanford in 1989, and a law degree in 1992. He also cofounded a conservative campus newspaper, The Standford Review, in 1987.
Ken Chenault has been the CEO and Chairman of American Express since 2001, and is a director at IBM.
Studying history at Bowdoin College helped him decide he wanted to change the system from within, rather than working outside of it.
'I was a history major at Bowdoin and as I looked at different movements in different stages in history, it was clear to me that it was important to have some segments of any particular group work within the system,' he says in an interview with Bowdoin Magazine. 'These people could bring an enlightened view or a different set of perspectives. I thought to work totally outside the system was destructive and counter-productive in the long term.'
As founder and majority shareholder of Icahn Enterprises, Carl Icahn is one of the most well-known and aggressive activist investors of our time.
His philosophy thesis for his 1957 degree was titled 'The Problem of Formulating an Adequate Explication of the Empiricist Criterion of Meaning.' He went to NYU's medical school, but dropped out without graduating.
Irene Rosenfeld has been CEO of Mondelēz International since 2006, when the company was known as Kraft Foods.
She graduated from Cornell with a degree in psychology in 1975 and went on to earn a master's in business and a Ph.D. in marketing and statistics from the same school.
In a 2011 story published by the Chicago Tribune, Rosenfeld says she first became interested in marketing when she led a course about the psychology of advertising as a teaching assistant her junior year.
Before her distinguished career as First Lady, U.S. Senator, and Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton was a political science major at Wellesley College.
Hillary Rodham, as she was known then, graduated in 1969 after serving as president of the school's Young Republicans group her freshman year (she later changed her mind after being swayed by the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War).
After graduating, she went to work odd jobs in Alaska before enrolling at Yale Law School the following fall.
Lloyd Blankfein has been the CEO of Goldman Sachs since 2006. He grew up in public housing in Brooklyn, and eventually made it to Harvard. He was a government major there, but by all accounts not a particularly committed one. His roommate recounts time spent procrastinating by watching Star Trek.
Blankfein went on to attend Harvard's law school, and worked at a law firm, but had a 'pre-life crisis,' abandoned the partner track, and went on to rise at Goldman.
Beth Mooney graduated from UT-Austin with a history degree in 1977, but at the time, job interviewers were only interested in her as a secretary, according to a 2011 Forbes story.
Mooney had bigger dreams, though, and went door to door to every financial institution in Dallas in search of a place in one of the banks' management training programs. She ultimately got her way when she was hired by Republic Bank of Dallas under the condition that she pursue an M.B.A. at Southern Methodist University at night.
In 2010, she was appointed CEO of KeyCorp, making her the first woman CEO of a top-20 U.S. bank.
Clarence Thomas was nominated and confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice during George H.W. Bush's presidency, succeeding Thurgood Marshall.
Thomas studied at the College of the Holy Cross, where he majored in English and took a role in many social causes on campus, including protesting the Vietnam War and campaigning for Civil Rights. He went to Holy Cross after dropping out of a seminary in Missouri following the death of Martin Luther King Jr.
Anne Mulcahy served as CEO and chair of Xerox from 2001 through 2009. She started out in the company as a sales representative in 1976, two years after earning her B.A. in English and journalism from Marymount College in New York.
She gave the final commencement speech at her alma matter, a women's liberal arts college, before it merged with the larger Fordham University. Presently, she serves on the Board of Trustees for the Save the Children charity.
George Soros is the chairman of Soros Fund Management and one of the most successful hedge fund managers of all time.
He's particularly well known for a 1992 bet against the pound which earned him the nickname, 'the man who broke the Bank Of England.'
While studying under renowned philosopher Karl Popper, Soros worked as a railway porter and a waiter to pay his tuition.
Ted Turner is the founder of CNN and TBS, and a noted philanthropist.
Although he went on to become a billionaire, Turner's father was furious with him for choosing to study classics and wrote a famous letter in which he stated, 'I am appalled, even horrified, that you have adopted classics as a major. As a matter of fact, I almost puked on the way home today.'
Turner later changed his major to economics, but was expelled soon after for living with his girlfriend against Brown University's wishes. The school ultimately awarded him an honorary bachelor's degree in 1989.
Richard Anderson has been the CEO of Delta Air Lines since 2007. He began his career in the legal department at Continental Airlines, knowing nothing about the industry. His handling of a 1987 plane crash helped send him up the corporate ladder.
Anderson earned a B.A. in political science from the University of Houston and then went on to earn a law degree from South Texas College of Law.
Brian Moynihan has been the director, president and CEO of Bank of America since January 2010.
Moynihan majored in history at Brown University, then earned his J.D. from Notre Dame. At Brown, Moynihan played rugby and won the Ivy League championship his junior year.
Today, he puts his history background to use as a board member for the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Larry Fink is the cofounder and CEO of the investment firm BlackRock.
He studied political science at Duke University and then received his M.B.A. at UCLA.
Fink's firm oversees one of the world's largest asset managers, and the government used his firm as an advisor during the financial crisis to value billions of dollars of real estate assets.
Heather Bresch, Mylan CEO, majored in international studies and political science at West Virginia University
Since the beginning of 2012, Heather Bresch has been the CEO of Mylan Inc., a Fortune 500 company and one of the world's largest manufacturers of generic drugs.
She graduated from West Virginia in 1991 with a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations, leaving West Virginia for California shortly after.
After she returned to The Mountain State, her father, present-day U.S. senator Joe Manchin (then a state senator), helped her get a job with Mylan through his connection with the company's cofounder Mike Puskar.
Sam Palmisano is the former CEO of IBM, having stepped down at the end of 2011 after playing a leading role in revitalizing the company.
He studied history at Johns Hopkins University, where he was a member of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity and earned the nickname Baloo, after the bear in 'The Jungle Book.' He was also a co-captain of the football team.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg has served as a justice of the Supreme Court since 1993, when she was appointed to the position by Bill Clinton.
She graduated from Cornell in 1954 with a degree in government. After a short stint working as a secretary in Oklahoma, where her husband was stationed in the U.S. Army, she returned to the east coast to enroll at Harvard Law School.
Stephen Schwarzman cofounded the Blackstone Group, a private equity firm, in 1985, after heading Lehman Brothers' mergers and acquisitions team.
He graduated from Yale in 1969, with an interdisciplinary major, which he describes as incorporating 'psychology, sociology, anthropology and biology, which is really sort of the study of the human being.'
He was one year ahead of George W. Bush at Yale's Skull and Bones society, and the two remained close after college. He received an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School in 1972.
Judy McGrath was the chairwoman and CEO of MTV from 2004 to the summer of 2011, during which she oversaw a period of great success for the company's networks, which include Comedy Central and Nickelodeon.
Today, she runs Astronauts Wanted, a multimedia joint venture between herself and Sony Music Entertainment, and sits on Amazon's board of directors.
She joined MTV as copywriter in 1981, just as the network was getting off the ground. She earned a B.A. in English from Pennsylvania's Cedar Crest College, near her home town of Scranton, in 1974.
Robert Gates served as Secretary of Defence under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He is currently chancellor of his alma mater, the College of William and Mary.
In college, Gates was a member of Alpha Phi Omega, and active with the Young Republicans group on campus. He went on to get a master's in history from Indiana University, and a Ph.D. in the same from Georgetown.
His dissertation was 'Soviet Sinology: An Untapped Source for Kremlin Views and Disputes Relating to Contemporary Events in China.'
Jerry Brown has been Governor of California twice, from 1975 to 1983, and from 2011 to the present. His father was also governor of the state.
He started out at Santa Clara University, before moving to Sacred Heart Novitiate, where he had hoped to become a Catholic priest. After a year, he transferred to Berkeley, where he majored in classics. He later earned his law degree at Yale.
Bob Iger took over as chairman and CEO of Disney from Michael Eisner in 2005 after a well-publicised shakeup by Roy E. Disney.
Iger graduated magna cum laude from Ithaca College's Roy H. Park School of Communications with a B.S. in television and radio.
He started as a weatherman at a local TV station, and went on to rise through the ranks at ABC, which was eventually bought by Disney.
Christopher Connor has been the CEO of the Fortune 500 building materials company Sherwin Williams since 1999, and became chairman in 2000. He started out not in strategic planning or finance, but as the director of advertising for the company's paint stores group in 1983.
He earned his B.A. in sociology from The Ohio State University in 1978.
Kim Bowers has been the CEO of gas station/convenience store chain CST Brands, a Fortune 500 company, since January 2013.
She graduated from Miami University (Ohio) with a degree in Spanish and international studies before picking up a master's in international relations from Baylor University and a law degree from the University of Texas.
Before her career in business, she specialised in mergers and acquisitions at a Texas law firm.
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