Microsoft founder Bill Gates is probably the most famous billionaire college dropout. He’s often held up as a shining example that you don’t need to graduate from college to be successful.
And it is true there are many successful college dropouts. But even Gates explained: “It is strange to call me a college dropout in all but the most literal sense. I went for three years and took enough courses to graduate.” He also scored 1590 out of 1600 on the SAT, which is probably why he was admitted to not just any college, but Harvard University.
While we like to tell the dropout-turned-billionaire story, most people in powerful positions graduated from college — and not only that, highly elite colleges.
Here are just a few examples: Billionaire Amazon founder Jeff Bezos graduated from Princeton University; Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from Stanford University; and Ben Bernanke, former chair of the Federal Reserve, got undergraduate and graduate degrees from Harvard University and a Ph.D. from MIT.
In a recent research study titled “Investigating The World’s Rich And Powerful,” I examined the education level of three groups of global elites: billionaires (people in the top 0.0000001% of wealth), the people who attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, and the world’s most powerful men and women according to Forbes magazine. The total sample size included over 4,000 global elites.
In the graphs that follow, black bars indicate the percentage that attended an elite school, which were those schools that appear at the top of the U.S. News & World Report rankings and the QS World University rankings. (See this paper and this paper for the full list of schools considered elite.) Dark grey bars indicate the percentage that attended graduate school, independent of the elite school category. Brown bars indicate the percentage independent of the first two categories that attended college. And finally, light grey bars indicate the percentage that did “not report” or had “no college.”
Overall for the global elite, the majority of each of these groups attended and graduated from college, and a very high percentage attended elite schools. Powerful men (92.4%), women (91.0%), and Davos attendees (90.5%) had higher college attendance than billionaires (71.1%).
To give a sense of the over-representation of people in these groups who went to elite schools, in the U.S. 44.8% of billionaires, 85.2% of powerful men, 55.9% of powerful women, and 63.7% of Davos attendees went to elite schools. Based on census and college data, I estimate that only about 2% to 5% of all U.S. undergraduates went to one of these elite schools. That makes 44.8% to 85.2% well above base-rate expectations.
An interesting story emerges when the data is examined by country. Billionaires are represented in the top graph, and Davos attendees in the bottom graph below.
Elite school education appears especially important in the U.S. compared to other countries.
There are, of course, exceptions. David Abney was recently named the new CEO of UPS. He attended Delta State University, a relatively unknown school, rather than a brand name college.
I wondered how common it is for a Fortune 500 CEO to have an elite school vs. a state school on their resume, as well as how much it’s changed over time. To address this question, I examined the proportion of Fortune 500 CEOs who attended an elite school from 1996 to 2014, represented below.
It turns out that roughly 38% of CEOs have attended elite colleges for the last two decades. This shows the remarkable consistency of the selectivity of higher education in the backgrounds of some of the most influential business leaders.
At a time when plenty of high-profile people are arguing that college is less and less necessary — Yale graduate David Leonhardt of the New York Times argued on The Upshot that “there is still scant evidence that the selectivity of the college one attends matters much,” and Stanford graduate and billionaire Peter Thiel has advised “don’t go to college” — the opposite seems to be true.
A degree from a highly selective college appears to be part of the trajectory of those people who are now billionaires, World Economic Forum attendees, the most powerful, and Fortune 500 CEOs.
So why is attending a brand name school so common among the global rich and powerful?
One could argue that, especially for billionaires, many of these people got a leg up in college admissions due to their parent’s wealth and influence. However, even among self-made billionaires, the percentage attending elite schools was not much different. Still, it is hard to completely rule out the possibility that this trend is, in part, about money and elite college attendance as a symbol of status for the ruling class.
Alternatively, it could be that many of the smartest people end up attending elite schools due to their high standardized test scores and other academic metrics. Maybe it’s not elite college attendance that matters as much as the personal traits they had before they even went to college. Following that theory, whether David Abney went to a state school or an elite school, perhaps he still would have risen to the top spot at UPS because of who he is.
Or it might be that the power of the networks, brand name, and quality of education that come with elite school attendance is why so many of these people ended up in such positions of influence.
Like most things, it’s probably a combination of all these factors, in different measure for different people. It is without question that at least for the people who currently control a disproportionate share of the world’s wealth and power, a college education — and specifically an elite college education — appears important in some way.
Perhaps in the future a college education may not be as important. However, this data should give pause to anyone who thinks that not going to college is a good idea. College dropouts who rule the world are exceptions, not the rule.
If you want to become one of the global elite, you should probably attend college. And to increase your chances even more, a brand name college wouldn’t hurt.
Jonathan Wai, Ph.D., is a psychologist, writer, and research scientist at the Duke University Talent Identification Program and an expert on multiple issues surrounding the development of intellectual and creative talent. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or G+. Read his blog Finding the Next Einstein: Why Smart is Relative. © 2014 by Jonathan Wai.
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