10 Notably Successful People with Liberal Arts Degrees

Madeleine Albright testifies during a hearing on Capitol Hill

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright testifies during a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee September 16, 2008 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong)

The value of a liberal arts education is something many people tend to question.

In reality, reports - and employers - frequently indicate that a liberal arts education continues to prepare students for career success long after graduation. Employees who studied history, political science, humanities, mathematics and more in their undergraduate pursuits are often better communicators, analytical thinkers and more adaptable to excel in any given task. From supreme court justices to CEOs, political activists to media moguls, some of the most influential and powerful people attribute their liberal arts education as the launchpad for their successful careers. Here are a few of those people.

1. Conan O’Brien, Bachelor of Arts in History

Long before he became the creator, writer and executive producer of his Emmy Award-winning late night show, Conan O’Brien studied history and literature and graduated with honors in 1985. Twenty-five years later, a fan surprised him with a copy of his senior thesis - an analysis on the works of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor - showing just how important that final project can be.


2. Madeleine Albright, Bachelor of Arts in Political Science

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright graduated with a political science degree and went on to pursue multiple advanced degrees in government and foreign relations. Her storied diplomatic career - as a college professor, translator, foreign policy advisor and United Nations representative - led to her unanimous confirmation as secretary of state by the U.S. Senate in 1997, making Albright the highest ranking woman official in American history at the time.


3. Ken Chenault, Bachelor of Arts in History

Before becoming the powerful and influential Chairman and CEO of American Express Company, Chenault pursued a bachelor's degree in history. He credits his undergrad studies for fostering his management philosophy and effectiveness as a leader to inspire corporate change from within.


4. Clarence Thomas, Bachelor of Arts in English Literature

Spurred by a desire to master the English language, Justice Thomas graduated with a degree in English literature in 1971. He was the first member of his family to attend college, writing in his 2007 memoir that he credited his grandfather’s tough-love for imparting upon him the importance of hard work and a good education.


5. George Soros, Bachelor of Science in Philosophy

The self-made billionaire put himself through college in London after fleeing his native Hungary and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1951. Soros went on to earn a Phd in philosophy just three years later, supporting his education by working as a railway porter and waiter before learning he had a knack for making money.


6. Oprah Winfrey, Bachelor of Arts in Communications

The media mogul studied broadcast journalism as an undergrad before dropping out to launch her media career in 1976, just a few credits shy of graduation. In 1987 she returned to college and completed the last of her requirements to earn a bachelor’s degree in communications.


7. Natalie Portman, Bachelor of Arts in Psychology

With an enviable career already behind her, Portman took a break from acting to earn a degree in psychology and graduated in 2003. Asked why she would put a successful acting career on hold for her education, she famously replied, “I don’t care if college ruins my career, I’d rather be smart than a movie star.”


8. Toni Morrison, Bachelor of Arts in English

Before winning the prestigious Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes, Morrison earned a bachelor’s degree in English to pursue a teaching career. Stating she never wanted to become a writer, she fell into writing by accident after joining a writer’s group on a whim. The result? The first draft of her first novel, The Bluest Eye.


9. Rober Iger, Bachelor of Science in Television and Radio

Iger famously rose from weatherman at a local ABC affiliate to chairman and CEO of Disney in 2005, but not before earning a bachelor’s degree in television and radio in 1973. His inherent business sense, hands-on experience and practical knowledge of the industry fast tracked his meteoric rise to head of the world’s largest and most beloved media company.


10. Desmond Tutu, Bachelor of Arts in Theology

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu first rose to national and international fame as a prominent human rights leader fighting against the injustices of South Africa’s apartheid system. Although he originally wanted to be a doctor, and later a teacher, Tutu graduated with a bachelor’s degree in theology and went on to become the Archbishop of Cape Town, a Nobel laureate and leading moral voice of our time.

Topics: Areas of Study and Degree Programs, Motivation