The myth of the university dropout-turned-millionaire is precisely that – largely a myth – according to new research.
Instead, the vast majority of successful leaders attend university, and often attend a handful of elite universities.
Jonathan Wai, of Duke University in North Carolina, and Heiner Rindermann, of Germany’s Chemnitz University of Technology, studied 11,745 US leaders, including chief executives, politicians, business leaders and federal judges.
Their aim was to look at whether there was any truth to the widespread perception – fuelled by media coverage of Harvard dropouts Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, and Microsoft boss Bill Gates – that the most successful people did not have degrees.
The returns of an elite education
In fact, the academics discovered that 94 per cent of the leaders they surveyed had attended university. Around half had attended one of the top US universities.
Across the US, between two and five per cent of undergraduates attend these elite universities. However, their graduates accounted for more than 80 per cent of Forbes magazine’s list of powerful people. A third of multimillionaires surveyed had graduated from one of these universities.
The academics said: “For students with talent and motivation to make it to the top of US society, an elite college might just help you get there – whether it’s the networks you acquire or the brand on your resumé.”
Lee Elliot Major, chief executive of the Sutton Trust, says that figures are similar in the UK; around one per cent of the population attends Oxford or Cambridge, but more than 70 per cent of barristers and judges are drawn from those two universities.
“What’s striking is that the returns of an elite education are getting bigger with every generation,” he said. “Getting that Oxbridge or Ivy League degree means so much more now. It’s astonishing, really.”
Concentration of power
However, he added, attending an elite university actually counts for much more in the US than in the UK. “If you get an elite degree in the US, it really does catapult you into the professional elite,” he said.
“Here, while it clearly helps, it’s not the whole story. If you’re a state-school-educated student, even having a Cambridge degree, you’re still less likely to progress up the professions than your independent-school counterpart.”
He also noted that in the UK power is concentrated in London, where having the right contacts can make all the difference.
“In America, you have several major cities where you can get very good jobs,” Dr Elliot Major said. “You can climb the ladder relatively locally, and then move to a national level.”
Despite that, the US researchers said that only rarely among the 11,745 leaders they studied did they encounter someone from a very disadvantaged background.
This, Dr Elliot Major observed, can have a significant social impact. He said: “It leads to a profound disconnect between the professional elites and the people they’re meant to serve."