An executive search firm in the not-for-profit sector, Kittleman, has recently looked at two groups of highly successful heads of organizations: the chief executive officers of the Fortune 500 corporations and their counterparts at the 100 largest non-profit organizations listed on Forbes. It is not surprising that the captains of industry and philanthropy mostly went to college. But where did they go?
Looking first at the Fortune 500, more (14) top executives received their undergraduate from the University of Wisconsin than from Harvard (12). Of the nine schools with six or more CEO alumni, three were elite Ivy League Schools (Harvard, Cornell, and Penn) with a total of 28, exactly the same number as graduated from the three top public Big Ten athletic conference schools (Wisconsin, Michigan, and Purdue). Two of the remaining three top schools (University of California at Berkeley and Texas A & M) were also public institutions.
In total, exactly the same number (213) of CEOs of the 500 largest corporations received their undergraduate degree from public schools as did from private ones. Since the number of college graduates is greater at the public schools, the probability for a new graduate eventually getting to the top of the business enterprise pyramid is greater at private schools. Still, drive and ambition can get a public-school grad to the top. The Universities of Illinois and Texas had exactly the same number of CEOs (five) as Yale and Princeton universities. The mostly public Big Ten schools had 62 executives, far more than the 46 graduates of one of the eight Ivy League schools.
If you turn to the top 100 non-profit organizations, however, the private schools dominate. Some 55 attended private schools, compared with only 32 public ones (the remainder either did not graduate from colleges or attended schools in other countries). Of Yale’s nine CEOs, four (44 percent) ran non-profit organizations, while of Wisconsin’s 14 CEOs, only two (14 percent) did.
The path to the top appears to typically be a bit longer and more arduous for graduates of public schools than those from elite private institutions. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard.com, the average annual salary of students after leaving school was $79,625 at the eight Ivy League schools, some 44 percent higher than at the 14 mostly public (Northwestern being the exception) Big Ten schools (where the average was $55,264). Graduates of elite private schools typically get better, more remunerative jobs from the beginning. But the best, brightest and most ambitious of the state university graduates have a decent chance to work their way up to the top.
Why does a larger proportion of leaders from private schools end up with non-profit organizations than their state university counterparts? I have two plausible explanations. First, private universities are highly dependent on private philanthropy—they are far more private donor and endowment-dependent. Students growing up in that collegiate environment might naturally gravitate more to the philanthropic endeavors that helped sustain them during their formative years.
Second, a fairly large proportion of graduates of highly selective private schools come from affluent families, far more than is the case with state-affiliated schools. These kids are accustomed to wealth and privilege, and therefore perhaps do not have as much drive to achieve wealth and power as do middle class or poorer kids attending more affordable state schools. The kids from the public schools who succeed are striving to succeed in the highly competitive but risky world of free market capitalism, while those from private schools are perhaps more interested in the somewhat less remunerative but also less risky and still very comfortable life of being a foundation executive.
One might think that the capture of the House of Representatives by the Democrats might lead to a surge in support for public higher education, for example pushing free college proposals. It might seem that Democrats highly concerned or even obsessed by the decline in intergenerational income mobility might seek to disfavor those on average affluent kids attending the elite schools that disproportionately pick our nation’s leaders, not only in business but elsewhere (e.g., politics). For example, they might favor an endowment tax on rich private schools used to help fund free college for lower-income kids.
I doubt this will happen for a simple reason: many progressive leaders have degrees from the elite private schools. I took 10 leaders allied with the Democratic Party including congressional powers like Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, and Chuck Schumer, and potential presidential candidates (like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, Joe Biden) and examined their educational background. Excepting Kamala Harris, all had a degree or had taught at a private college, including highly elite schools like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Columbia, Penn, Dartmouth, and Chicago.
The Kittleman study shows that ambitious individuals from modest family backgrounds who attend their local flagship state university can and often do become part of America’s corporate leadership. But it also shows that success is likely to be somewhat greater if you attended one of what might be termed America’s gated academic communities, the wealthy, highly selective, private schools of the Ivy League and beyond.