Educating the Rich and Powerful: The College Backgrounds of America's Richest and Its Top CEOs

Tom Wood

In January 1925, in the middle of the Roaring Twenties, President Calvin Coolidge famously said “The chief business of the American people is business.” The country has gone through a lot of changes since then, including the Great Depression and the New Deal, and has seen during that time a vastly increased role for government in the economy and many other aspects of American life. Nevertheless, business remains central to the American culture. This can be seen in the impact that the current economic and financial crisis, which has been described as the worst since the Great Depression, had on the election on November 4. Americans have come to expect continued economic progress and stability, and when they fail to get it, rightly or wrongly, politicians are held accountable. While it is probably true that business is less dominant in American life than it was in 1925, it can still be said with some justice that the chief business of America continues to be business.

Since business plays such a fundamental, important role in American life, those of us who are concerned about higher education need to pay attention to how higher education intersects with the economy and the business world. This posting selects one admittedly narrow, but I think interesting and illuminating, way of viewing this general question. It will examine the college backgrounds of America’s richest and its top CEOs, as well as some of the historical trends for the same. The investigation is pursued in the conviction that the way in which, and the extent to which, America’s richest and its top CEOs have been engaged personally in higher education can provide some insights into how American higher education is faring in the wider culture, and into how tenuous or how solid a foothold higher education has in the wider society.


It will behoove us to pay particularly close attention to the liberal arts. These have always been the core of the traditional university, and it is hard to see how the National Association of Scholars and our allies, who are concerned with fundamental reform and the general health of the academy, can achieve our aims if the liberal arts languish. Given our concerns, it is particularly relevant to look at the extent to which America’s richest and its top CEOs have backgrounds in the liberal arts.

As it happens, this issue was raised in March of this year by Mark Bauerlein in a blog in Brainstorms, a section or division of The Chronicle of Higher Education. I post blogs and other pieces by Bauerlein to the CASNET list (a Listserv for the National Association of Scholars) with some frequency. (A CASNET posting on November 3, “Centers try to change focus on diversity," mentions Bauerlein as the director of Emory's Program in American Citizenship, which is funded by the Veritas Fund.) Bauerlein publishes in popular periodicals such as the The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Washington Post, and The Times Literary Supplement. He is a member of the NASand the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics. He has taught English at Emory University since 1989, with a two-and-a-half-year break in 2003-05 to serve as the Director of the Office of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts. His latest book, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future; Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30, was published in May 2008.


As someone who is concerned with the liberal arts and issues of literacy generally, Bauerlein is on the lookout for things that can support some optimism in what he apparently sees as a growing gloom enveloping them. One ground for hope or optimism is that there appears to be surprising respect for the liberal arts in the business community. In his blog on March 16 of this year, Bauerlein reports that he attended a luncheon given for young professionals at GlaxoSmithKline, the second largest pharmaceutical company in the world. The speaker at the event was Jean-Pierre Garnier, the CEO of the company. In the course of giving the young professionals advice about how to succeed in their work, Garnier advised them to read widely, well beyond their expertise and professional duties, as this “stretches the mind and increases knowledge.” A commenter on Bauerlein’s blog also reported that in the late seventies, he heard Yale’s then new Vice-President for Alumni Relations, who had recently retired as a major bank president, say that as the president of a bank, he preferred to hire liberal arts majors rather than business majors, on the grounds that the latter were often rather “rigid,” having been trained only to do a specific way of doing business-related processes. Yale’s new Vice-President had found, on the other hand, that the liberal arts graduate is more readily able to think and write as well as learn the employer’s way of doing things. He acknowledged that the business major is likely to find a higher-paying entry-level first job, but he claimed that the liberal arts major will “outstrip the business major in salary and career success just about every time."

Bauerlein says that he has noted a pattern here:

…when CEOs are queried about what kind of workplace talents they’d like to see more of, they don’t talk about technical or computing or professional skills and knowledge. They talk about creativity, innovativeness, and imagination. Those traits come from long experience with literature, philosophy, history, and the arts.

The claim that the liberal arts major will “outstrip the business major in salary and career success just about every time” is a large and interesting one to make in favor of the liberal arts (BA and AB) degree, but is there solid, empirical evidence that it is true? As it happens, there is a considerable body of evidence bearing on the question. The claim that the liberal arts major will “outstrip” the business major every time goes too far. Nevertheless, there is compelling evidence that the BA or AB degree does significantly outperform the BBA (bachelor of business administration) in the business world, at least over the long-term—although it takes some digging to find this evidence.

The college backgrounds of America's top CEOs: the Forbes magazine and Spencer Stuart studies

I have found two studies of the college backgrounds of America’s top CEOs that address this question.


One appeared in the May 18 1998 issue of Forbes magazine, which profiled the top 800 Chief Executive Officers that year. Some of the principal findings are available online here, but the crucial details about the educational backgrounds of the nation’s top CEOs are not available online. They are, however, given in a table that covers 760 CEOs (data was apparently unavailable for 40 of them) that appears on pp. 270-299 of the issue. The table gives the undergraduate and graduate degrees (if any) and the colleges attended. To get the following breakdown, I counted up the degrees conferred, broken down into the four categories Forbes used, and rounded the numbers:

BS (Bachelor of Science): 53%

BA/AB (Bachelor of Arts): 36%

BBA (Bachelor of Business Administration/BSBA (Bachelor of Science in Business Administration: 9%

Other (including LLB, or Bachelor of Laws): 1%

According the Forbes study, then, it is more common for the top CEOs to hold BAs than BBAs. (BS degrees are the most common.)

A study conducted by the Spencer Stuart Company addressed the same question in 2005, using the S&P 500 list. A summary of the basic findings appeared in the International Herald Tribune on August 31 2008 ("Over time, liberal arts grads succeed in business"). A table giving details of the CEOs of the S&P 500 is available online at the Spencer Stuart website.

In order to compare liberal arts degrees with the BBA and other degrees, I grouped the undergraduate degrees given in this table into five categories: (1) BA-liberal arts; (2) BA-Business Administration & related degrees (e.g., Accounting and Marketing); (3) BS-Business Administration & related degrees (e.g., Industrial Management, Construction Management, and Risk & Insurance); (4) BS-Engineering; and (5) BS-All Other (e.g., Science, Government, Applied Math, Math, Sciences, Psychology, Computer Science, Political Science, Law). The results are given below:







BA/AB-liberal arts






BA/AB-Business Administration & related






BS/Business Administration & related

























There should be a total of 500 undergraduate degrees, amounting to 100% of the total (including the 2% who earned no degrees). The total I came up with was 4 short of this, but the result is good enough for the present purposes. (The task was quite tedious and I did not want to do it over again to find the omissions.)

The results are striking. At the top tiers of American management, there are almost as many CEOs with liberal arts degrees (149) as with BAs and BSs in business administration and related fields combined (152), and there are more BA-liberal arts degrees than any other individual grouping.

Some further considerations about the popular but underperforming BBA degree

The findings above are surprising in view of the popularity of the BBA degree. For decades, there has been a tremendous growth in the number of students each year who take undergraduate degrees in business—numbers that in fact represent an ever-increasing percentage of the total number of degrees awarded. These trends suggest that college students believe strongly in the value of the BBA for a career in the business world. The findings suggest, however, that this faith is largely misplaced.

Bauerlein reported in the above-mentioned article that bachelor's degrees conferred in business far exceed those in any other discipline. He pointed out that in 2004, 307,000 out of 1.4 million total bachelor’s degrees went to business majors—more than English (54,000), foreign languages (17,700), liberal arts (42,000), philosophy and religion (11,000), and social sciences and history (150,000) combined. That information is taken from National Center for Education Statistics data. Unfortunately, the statistics are not available from NCES that one would need to have to actually compare the rate of success of holders of BBAs versus BA/AB degrees over time. In order to make that comparison, one would have to be able to compare the number and percentages of graduates with BA degrees and BBA degrees respectively who actually went into business. The NCES statistics above do not give those numbers: they tell us only how many graduated with those degrees, not the numbers of both that actually entered the business world at the starting gate. It is very likely, however, that more graduates with BBAs go into business after graduating than do those with BA degrees, many of whom undoubtedly take jobs in the independent sector, in teaching, in government, and so on. So a simple tally of the kinds of degrees held by the top CEOs undoubtedly underestimates—and probably very significantly—the track record of holders of BA degrees in the business world as compared to those with BBAs.

The college backgrounds of the richest Americans

Recently some critics—many of them conservative or libertarian—have begun to question the value of higher education. Some of these critics, like Charles Murray, have even suggested that college is a waste of time for those who are best suited for it. Such critics have been especially critical of the liberal arts degree, as being particularly useless for careers in business, or indeed for any job in the “real world”—which for many of these critics means particularly careers in the world of business.

Although I have looked hard, I have not found anything yet to support such criticism and skepticism, either in terms of what business leaders and successful entrepreneurs have said about the importance of a college education or in terms of their own educational backgrounds.

Almost without exception, America’s top business leaders and entrepreneurs appear to believe strongly in the importance of education, including higher education, and are alarmed at the poor job that K-12 and American colleges are doing. They are putting money and energy into PR and lobbying efforts to get states and the federal government to increase funding for higher education, and these efforts appear to be motivated by a healthy dose of self-interest. If American businesses cannot get sufficient numbers of employees who can think, write, and speak well, and who have the requisite critical thinking skills, they will have to spend the time and money educating employees themselves. Obviously, they would prefer to have taxpayers, students, and parents carry this burden.

The value that American business places on good education, including good higher education, emerges most clearly, perhaps, when one looks at the college backgrounds of America’s most successful entrepreneurs. This evidence is particularly telling, because one might expect critics who believe that higher education has little or no value in the “real world” to place more value on this evidence than on the college backgrounds of the nation’s top CEOs, on the grounds that large corporations tend to be large bureaucracies with an acquired set of social expectations that might favor job applicants and employees with college degrees, even though this preference might be unjustifiable in terms of actual performance. A better test, they could be expected to argue, would be the “self-made man.” Surely, for the self-made, successful entrepreneur, they might think, college education is unimportant, and indeed a waste of time.

It is true that there are very wealthy self-made men without college degrees in America. (I refer to “self-made men” not out of gender bias, but because, as it turns out, America’s wealthiest self-made entrepreneurs are, almost without exception, male.) But such individuals are very much the exception. Evidence for this can be found in the now-standard list of America’s wealthiest individuals, called the Forbes 400. I have culled the educational profiles of the first 100 individuals from the Forbes list—and for good measure, the last 24 individuals on the list as well, all of whom have the Forbes ranking of 377—and presented them in the Appendix below. Clearly, the overwhelming majority of these individuals are well-educated and have college degrees. Many have MBAs and other advanced degrees.

Unfortunately, the Forbes list fails to provide some of the most important details of the higher educational backgrounds of the richest 400 Americans. All of the individuals listed with college backgrounds are described as holding the “Bachelor of Arts / Science” degree. However, I have Web-searched (Googled) for information on the top 50 self-made individuals in this list, and have found that a fair percentage of these actually hold BBA degrees rather than BS or BA degrees.

The Education Portal web site claims that the most common degree found on the Fortune [sic: Forbes] 400 richest Americans list is the “BBA and BS in business degree,” but I very much doubt the truth of this claim. I have found nothing on the Forbes site, in the Bernstein and Swan book-length study of the Forbes 400, or anything on the Web, that substantiates this claim. Because the Forbes list fails to give an accurate, detailed breakdown of the college degrees or majors of the individuals on the list, and because information about this is not always available even on the Web, one cannot be dogmatic about this. However, in Web searching (Googling) the names of the first 50 individuals on the Forbes list (I looked only at the self-made billionaires), I found that BA and BS degrees in fields other than business were at least as common as degrees in business.

Historical trends and some projections

Clearly, America’s most successful entrepreneurs and top executives are well-educated. Moreover, it is likely that in the future they will become even better educated, as business and its cultural, social, and governmental environments go global and become more complex. These factors show up in a particularly clear fashion in America’s newest large industry: information technology (IT). Significantly, a look at the top 100 on that list (see the Appendix below) shows that the proportion of Forbes 400 members in the IT industry with advanced degrees from prestigious and selective public and private institutions is particularly high.

This point is generally valid, despite the well-known counterexamples of some famous college dropouts—most notably Bill Gates, who dropped out of Harvard when he was a junior to start Microsoft. Other prominent examples include Lawrence Ellison, Michael Dell, Paul Allen, and Steve Jobs. It is striking that IT’s top performers are either exceedingly well-educated or college dropouts. But this profile of the industry is anomalous, and not likely to survive as a long-term trend. In all likelihood, it is an artifact because IT is such a new industry, in which opportunities existed at the outset for bright geeks and nerds to create large companies in the industry from scratch. It is expected that as the industry matures—and it has done so very rapidly—the number of those without college degrees will decline, making it harder and harder for the successful dropout phenomenon to be duplicated.

That at, at least, appears to be the consensus of insiders in the industry. One interesting example is Eric Schmidt (BS Princeton, PhD UC Berkeley). Schmidt is currently the Chairman and CEO of Google Inc (and a member of the Board of Trustees of Princeton). Forbes ranks him #59 in the list of the 400 richest Americans. He says:

Intelligence and drive have always been basic requirements for success in this country. What's different today is that it's getting harder to succeed if you are not exceedingly well educated. [In Dinesh D’Souza, The virtue of prosperity: finding values in an age of techno-affluence, cited in Bernstein & Swan, All the Money in the World.]

In the IT sector of the economy, even the school one attends is important—something that is generally not true of most industries in the US, according to the Forbes list. Schmidt has mentioned this as a distinguishing mark of the IT industry:

Colleges like Harvard and MIT and Stanford are part of a social network. You can be a brilliant entrepreneur, but if you go to a no-name school you don't have access to those networks. Take my word for it, the networks count for a lot in this industry. [ibid]

It is also important to note that companies in IT do not limit their job searches to graduates with BS degrees. Google in particular has a reputation for looking for promising people with a wide variety of educational backgrounds, including the liberal arts, though it also has a reputation of concentrating its searches on graduates of more selective institutions.

Other degrees: PhDs, MBAs, LLDs, and JDs

The growing importance of higher education in the top tiers of American business and industry shows up in other ways. One is the increasing number of top CEOs with advanced degrees. Sixty-two percent of all S&P 500 CEOs have earned an advanced degree beyond their undergraduate degree (this includes MBAs, other master degrees, PhDs, etc.). The most common advanced degree is the M.B.A. (39%). These advanced degrees are strongly dominated by selective, prestigious institutions. One out of five of the MBAs is from Harvard Business School. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of those seeking MBAs are not people with business as their undergraduate major. Approximately two-thirds of MBA students have undergraduate degrees in something other than business.

A similar picture is presented by the Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans. Here is the way things currently stand in this list:

2006: JD/LLB 33%
MD: 4%
MBA: 64%
[Source: All the Money in the World, chart, p. 42]

According to the Bernstein and Swan study (p. 42), the number of Forbes 400 members with law degrees is growing even faster than the number with MBAs, more than doubling in 10 years. The Spencer Stuart Company gives a slightly lower figure for the S&P 500 CEOs who have earned a law degree: 11%.

It is appropriate to say something here about the LLB degree. The LLB (Bachelor of Laws degree), which originated in England, is the most common degree in law in common law countries. Typically, this is classed by Bernstein and Swan and other sources with the JD (Doctor of Jurisprudence) degree. This is certainly justifiable, but it is also important to note one way in which the LLB differs from the JD degree. Wikipedia describes the LLB as follows:

It was established as a liberal arts degree, …which requires that the student undertake a certain amount of study of the classics, but has developed into a more specialized professional degree in recent years. … Nonetheless, the goals of most LL.B. programs are to provide a scholarly education, and therefore jurisdictions which offer the LL.B. require additional education or training before a graduate is authorized to practice law.

There is, then, good reason to regard the LLB as similar to a liberal arts degree as well. It is therefore significant for the present discussion that the LLB is showing up in the top ranks of American corporations, European companies, and multinationals.

The emergence of the LLB degree in the top tiers of American corporations is one important indication of the growing globalization and internationalization of the American economy. This is a factor that will almost undoubtedly increase the importance of higher education in the business world—a point to which increasing attention has been given by those who study what might be called the sociology of American and international business. Monika Hamori, whose research recently figured in a 2005 issue of the Harvard Business Review, puts it this way:

In 1993 only 7% of American CEOs had international experience. The latest figure stands at 44%, a clear indication that such experience is valued highly in a globalising market. Prof Hamori explains why. “It’s a business requirement to have the skillsets associated with international experience. It’s associated with problem-solving and management skills, managing overseas staff requires more sophisticated management skills and dealing with additional levels of complexity.”

The Spencer Stuart Company came up with a similar finding (30%) in its 2003 survey.

The special importance of assessment to the future of the liberal arts

Jean-Pierre Garnier’s advice at the meeting for the aspiring young professionals at GlaxoSmithKline was: “Keep reading . . . read about any subject that interests you, and read about it until you fully understand it.” This is the kind of advice that needs to be drilled into the present generation of college students. It is essential advice for sustaining a belief in the importance of the life of the mind and of the importance of strong academic values in the academy and in the society at large. It is also vital to combating trends in the university that are undermining the value of the liberal arts degree—political correctness, grade inflation, the coddling of students, and the lowering of academic standards and expectations generally.

At a purely abstract or a priori level, Garnier’s advice makes sense. At higher management levels, executives and entrepreneurs do not function with a narrow skill set that might have been learned in classes dealing with accounting, marketing, or even with engineering. In the business world, executives quickly become generalists. In the higher management and executive levels, a premium is placed on creativity, imagination, good communication, and critical thinking skills. This being the case, it makes sense that students in college should emphasize the development of those general skills, and there is some reason to believe, as we have seen, that the liberal arts help to develop those skills.

Nevertheless, the liberal arts degree is proving to be a hard sell to undergraduates. Entry-level salaries for the holders of the BA have lagged behind those for BBA graduates for some time, so it is not surprising that the BA degree has declined relative to the BBA. That decline can be expected to accelerate in harder economic times, absent some change in the perception of students, parents, and the business world, since in a bad economy, college students are often focused on the short term: getting that first job. 

The problem is not to show in the abstract, or statistically, the value of the BA degree in the business world; instead, it is pre-eminently a measurement or assessment problem. Assessment and measurement of higher education have become burning issues for a number of reasons, but they are particularly important issues for the liberal arts. It is in the liberal arts, which remains the core of traditional higher education, that the problems of measurement and assessment become not only more pressing, but also more difficult. Those who care about the health and future of the liberal arts, therefore, should wish efforts like the Collegiate Learning Assessment project well. I intend to address the problems and prospects for this kind of effort in future postings.

Click on the link below to read the Appendix:

   Open DOC file ( 88.58KB) . . .


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