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Where Billionaires Went to School

May 21, 2019 :: Alex Collazo

Billionaires—love them, hate them, or love to hate them—run our world.

The top one percent controls 45% of all wealth according to Credit Suisse, a number which doesn’t even try to take into account the $32 trillion hidden in tax havens (about half of planetary GDP). This small group is very important, but we often don’t know much about who they are and how they think.

Education is the key to this puzzle. Whether you want to curb billionaires’ power or become one of them, it’s important to know where they spent their formative years. Or, maybe not. But if you’re curious, here are the 18 universities that educated the world’s top 20 richest people, ranked by number of affiliations.

Harvard University

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Harvard is tied for the top spot. Four of the world’s 20 richest people spent some time at Harvard, but the two richest—Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg—famously didn’t graduate. Given that, it seems fair to assume that Harvard does not create billionaires through amazing courses and professors. It simply attracts the sort of people who go on to become billionaires.

That type of person can, of course, do quite well at Harvard if they choose to, as proven by Gates’ classmate and collaborator Steve Ballmer, who graduated magna cum laude. The remaining Harvard alum in the top 20 is Michael Bloomberg, who earned a Harvard Business School MBA in 1964 immediately after his undergraduate education.

Stanford University

Stanford also boasts four entries, but shockingly only one graduate. Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page met at Stanford when Brin (a computer science PhD student) was assigned to give a campus tour to Page (a prospective student). They started collaborating in 1996, and soon their website’s massive growth pulled them away from their studies. Page, our sole graduate, truncated his PhD to a master’s, while Brin was technically still on leave from his PhD as of 2008.

Stanford’s non-Google billionaires include Steve Ballmer, who Gates enticed to drop out of the Graduate School of Business and join Microsoft, and Mukesh Ambani, who left his MBA to help his father run Reliance Industries.

Columbia University

A first on this list, both of Columbia’s affiliated billionaires actually graduated! This may have something to do with industry—no top tech founders here. Instead, Columbia boasts Warren Buffet, who got a master’s in economics at Columbia Business school and appears to have put it to good use.  The other Columbian is Rob Walton, a Walmart heir who got a JD at the law school.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

MIT is the alma mater of the two richer Koch heirs, multiple times over. David Koch got a bachelor’s and master’s in chemical engineering, while Charles Koch got a bachelor’s in general engineering, a master’s in nuclear engineering, and another master’s in chemical engineering.

It is also the alma mater of their slightly less wealthy billionaire brother, Bill Koch, and their late father Fred Koch, who himself was heir to a substantial fortune. While the Koch family’s MIT education may have played a role in the growth of Koch Industries, a more important factor was Fred Koch’s willingness to do business with Hitler and Stalin, who were happy to overlook the many patent infringement cases pending against him in the United States.

University of Arkansas

If you guessed “Walmart heirs,” congratulations! Sam Walton himself never attended the University of Arkansas, but he built his company and raised his family a couple of towns over from the campus in Fayetteville. Jim and Rob Walton both got bachelor’s in business administration at the university.

Other Institutions

Beyond these five universities are 13 others with only one alumnus in the top 20. They are: Princeton (Jeff Bezos, undergrad), Wharton (Buffett, transferred), University of Nebraska (Buffet, undergrad), École Polytechnique de Paris (Bernard Arnault, undergrad), National Autonomous University of Mexico (Carlos Slim, undergrad), University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign (Larry Ellison, transferred), Unviersity of Chicago (Larry Ellison, dropped out), Johns Hopkins (Michael Bloomberg, undergrad), University of Michigan (Larry Page, undergrad), Trinity University (Alice Walton, undergrad), The College of Wooster (Rob Walton, transferred), and Shenzhen University (Ma Huateng, undergrad).

Honorable Mention

Finally, it’s worth noting the one person in the top 20 who never went to college at all: Amancio Ortega, the founder of Zara. Currently the sixth richest person in the world, Ortega left school at the age of 14 to work as a delivery boy for a textiles company in A Coruña. His rags to riches story is well known in Spain, though the man himself almost never gives interviews.


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