Do You Need An Ivy League Degree to Rise to the Top in Business?

Thousands of high school seniors will apply to Ivy League universities this fall. For most, receiving a fat acceptance package is considered equivalent to winning the financial and career lottery. Rejection, however nicely expressed, is cause for huge disappointment—even despair. But how important is it to get into an Ivy if you want to reach the highest echelons of business? A new survey of the educational background of Fortune 100 CEOs suggests it may be much less important than you might think.

Consider the following data points from the Fortune 100 CEO survey:

  • Thirteen CEOs received their undergraduate degrees from Ivy League institutions. But fourteen received their degrees from international colleges and universities. Not one Fortune 100 CEO graduated from Brown, Columbia or Princeton.
  • Five CEOs graduated from Harvard, but another five graduated with an undergraduate degree from a British university.
  • Ten Fortune 100 CEOs did receive a graduate degree from Harvard. No other institution came close.

Given the data, it is hard to make the case for going to any particular undergraduate college or university. So do the Fortune 100 CEOs have any educational characteristics in common? Unfortunately, there is no information available about activities while in college, or GPA. What we do know, however, is that 85% of the Fortune 100 CEOs for whom information is available, majored at the undergraduate level in one of four areas: Engineering, Business Administration, Economics/Finance and Accounting. All these areas have a strong quantitative bias. The remaining 15%, studied in a wide variety of areas from history to geology or biology. Two thirds of the CEOs obtained an advanced degree, with about a third of the Fortune 100 choosing to complete an MBA.

Does the quality of education make a difference to someone’s ability to become a CEO of a Fortune 100 company? Absolutely. But the data suggests that a smart person can get a quality education just about anywhere. Perhaps the secret to success is both simpler, but also more difficult to achieve: To reach the top, you obviously need to be a great leader, with vision and drive. But you also need good mentors and the foresight to be in the right place at the right time. What you don’t have to have is an Ivy League degree.

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