Is College Still Worth It? The Education of America’s Richest People

Is College Still Worth It? The Education of America’s Richest People
Nayomi Chibana

Written by:
Nayomi Chibana

May 13, 2019
is college worth it should i go to college wide header

With America’s collective student loan debt at a historic high of $1.5 trillion, many high school graduates and parents around the country are asking themselves: Is college still worth it?

While research on the subject concludes that those with a college education earn an average of $900,000 more over a lifetime than those with just a high school diploma, the fact that tuition costs are increasing eight times faster than wages and college debt has tripled since 2006 has led many politicians and media outlets to declare this a national crisis.

In fact, several top companies such as Google, IBM, Netflix and Apple have recently eliminated the four-year degree requirement from many of their job postings, in an effort to reevaluate the need for formal educational programs that often do not produce graduates with the necessary skills to thrive in the real world.

Whether this movement will gain steam among other companies across the country is yet to be seen, but this begs the question: What about the most successful people in this country? What career path did they follow and how did they get to where they are?


Old Money vs. New Money

We dove into three-decades worth of data to find out. Using figures and rankings from The Forbes 400, the definitive list of the country’s wealthiest residents, we visualized the makeup of America’s richest people, from 1984 to now.

We found that “bootstrappers,” or self-made entrepreneurs, far outnumber those who have inherited fortunes and are growing with each passing year.

is college worth it should i go to college education of america's richest people area chart

It is clear from the above visual that the biggest percentage of “successful” people—if wealth is considered the principal metric of success—have paved much of their own way, although a majority of them come from a middle- or upper-middle-class background.

While we can conclude that the American Dream is indeed alive and well, the next question to be answered is: What education do these highly ambitious people have?


Most Billionaires Went to College

While many point to rich and successful college dropouts such as Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates to justify their decision to skip college and get to work instead, the data indicates that only 11% of the Forbes 400 in 2017 were college dropouts.

Meanwhile, 42% hold a bachelor’s degree; 25% an M.B.A or master’s degree; 8% a J.D. or M.D.; and 5% a PH.D.

education of forbes-400-compared-with-us-population

As expected, the majority of risk-takers—those who ventured to make it big without a college education—were found under the self-made category, rather than those who inherited wealth.

is college worth it should i go to college education of america's forbes 400

To make the trend even clearer, we plotted the Forbes 400 by level of education and their self-made score:

is college worth it should i go to college education of forbes 400 vs self made score

Here, you can see that the majority of list members can be found within the following quadrants, from the highest percentage to the lowest: 1) those with a high level of education and high self-made score; 2) those with a high level of education and inherited wealth; and 3) those with a low level of education and high self-made score.

This means that, contrary to popular opinion, most billionaires, including self-made risk-takers, went to college and got a degree, even if they never applied what they learned in school to amass an extraordinary amount of wealth.

In fact, it seems that the percentage of billionaires without a college degree has decreased drastically since 1984, a few years after Forbes first starting publishing their definitive rich list.

is college worth it should i go to college forbes 400 never graduated from college

While it’s true that the number of college dropouts seems to have increased slightly from 2011 to 2017, a more detailed breakdown reveals that the education of the Forbes 400 has remained roughly the same:

is college worth it should i go to college education forbes 400 2011 vs 2017

As a side note, it is also interesting to note that retail/restaurant, finance, investments and technology-related businesses created by the Forbes 400 have increased significantly since 1982, while real estate has decreased.

is college worth it should i go to college wealth creating businesses forbes 400


Is College Worth It?

Do you agree that attaining a college degree is necessary for success in this country? Or is having a formal education overrated? Let us know your thoughts below...

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    About the Author

    Nayomi Chibana is a journalist and writer for Visme’s Visual Learning Center. Besides researching trends in visual communication and next-generation storytelling, she’s passionate about data-driven content.

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