by Andrew Farrell
Friday, May 30, 2008
For every one opening at Harvard's undergraduate college, there were 14 hopeful high school applicants. Despite the daunting odds, there's good reason to try to win one of those coveted acceptance letters.
Harvard is consistently ranked as one of the top schools in the country. Its $35 billion endowment makes it the best-funded college in the United States.
Oh, and there's this: Harvard students are more likely to become billionaires than graduates of any other college.
Of the 469 Americans on Forbes' most recent list of the world's billionaires, 50 received at least one degree from Harvard. The school has produced 20 more current American billionaires than No. 2 on our list, Stanford University.
Harvard's billionaire alumni are an accomplished group. They include Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and media tycoon Sumner Redstone.
Stanford University trails Harvard, but still boasts 30 billionaire alumni. These include Nike co-founder Philip Knight and discount brokerage mogul Charles Schwab.
Fittingly, the California university, which has produced so many ultra-wealthy businesspeople, was founded by one. The grieving railroad tycoon Leland Stanford decided to found a university after his only son died of typhoid fever. With considerable land and money donations from the Californian, the school opened its doors in 1891.
Following Stanford is the University of Pennsylvania, with 27 graduates. Notable members of the group include real estate king Donald Trump and SAC Capital founder Steven Cohen.
Rounding out the top five are Yale, with 19 billionaire graduates, and Columbia University, with 15. The top school from the Midwest is the University of Chicago, ranked seventh, with 10 grads. No. 1 from the south is Duke, with eight.
A dubious distinction goes to New York University. The school has five dropouts who have gone on to become billionaires, including Carl Icahn. After receiving a degree in philosophy from Princeton, Icahn enrolled in NYU's medical school. Bored by all the memorization required, he jumped ship to be a stockbroker.
It proved a profitable career change. The Queens, N.Y., native is now the 46th wealthiest person in the world with a fortune of $14 billion. He could rack up another $300 million in profits if he can push Yahoo! to reconsider a sale to Microsoft.
A small group of schools account for a disproportionate amount of billionaire education. Just 20 universities and colleges account for 52% of the billionaire graduates while 182 schools count for the remainder.
What makes certain schools billionaire factories? For one thing, they offer excellent educations. But they also offer networking, which in many cases amounts to a ticket to the old-boys network, still very much in existence these days.
Some programs, like business schools, are more likely to produce super-high earners. Of Penn's 27 billionaire graduates, 20 attended its prestigious Wharton business school.
Strong research programs in developing areas of tech are important too. Sergey Brin and Larry Page met at Stanford's storied computer science program. The Google co-founders are now worth nearly $19 billion each.
Selectivity also helps. The best schools are overwhelmed by applicants each fall. Acceptance rates for nearly all of the top billionaire-producing schools are below 30%.
The low acceptance rates ensure that incoming classes are exceptionally smart. They're full of people whose resumes already point to great successes ahead.
Future billionaire Patrick McGovern caught MIT's attention as a teenager after building a computer that was unbeatable at tic-tac-toe, a remarkable feat in the 1950s. After attending MIT on a scholarship, McGovern began publishing magazines covering the growing computing world. Today, his tech media empire now puts his net worth at $4.7 billion.