We were all taught that if we want to be uber-successful in business, then getting admitted to an Ivy League School is one of the ultimate goals to achieve. Yet, nowadays all those stories about famous college dropouts – like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg – seem to be tearing down this myth. There is a trivial idea that an elite education is not all that it takes to become insanely successful. However, it has never been supported with real numbers and such a conclusion is usually drawn from individual experiences. In this post, we are going to prove with some stats that to become the cream of the crop of the entrepreneurial generation, you don’t have to graduate from an elite school.

 

Methodology

The goal of this research is to provide an alternative perspective on education that students can use to weigh their academic options. We did some serious digging to find out whether you should go to an Ivy League School to become a well-known and influential entrepreneur. To do that, we collected 10,000 profiles of the top entrepreneurs from the Crunchbase website (Crunchbase is a platform for discovering the most successful and innovative companies and the people behind them). Nowadays, the Crunchbase database is used as a barometer for success throughout the business world, and universities that produce the founders and CEOs of Crunchbase startups can use the prestige to attract new students. Next, we combed through a list of the highest-ranking Crunchbase CEOs/founders and examined the educational background of each entrepreneur.

Our final data set includes information about the education of the entrepreneurs from our sample (each founder’s graduation information had to be listed), as well as their Crunchbase rating and the rating of the university they attended. We checked the rankings of the universities that the entrepreneurs with the highest Crunchbase ratings attended and discovered that among the top ten most popular universities from our sample, there were no Ivy League Schools. This means that the majority of the startups in the Crunchbase database were founded by folks that don't have an Ivy League diploma.

Please note that in our research, we didn’t consider whether or not a particular person had graduated from a university. We only took into account whether a person got into university and which one. The important fact here is that all the entrepreneurs from our sample were enrolled in a degree program at some point.

Another important aspect of this research that needed to be discussed is how to interpret the data. Most Crunchbase companies are concentrated in specific niche fields, such as information technology. Therefore, readers who hope to major in computer science or business management will likely gain a lot of useful insights from this post. Also, the specificity of the Crunchbase data could be a limitation of our research, since the results are skewed towards science and business training.

Our main insights were:

  • Among the top 10 universities that have produced the most Crunchbase entrepreneurs, there are no Ivy League Schools.
  • Among the entrepreneurs with a Crunchbase rating from 1 to 500, 51.2% graduated from lower-ranking schools (i.e., schools that are outside the top 400).
  • Among the Crunchbase entrepreneurs with a rating from 1 to 100, 22% attended an Ivy League school; however, 11% of them got their first degree from a university that is not featured in the list of the top 1,000 universities in the world.
  • Around 70% of the entrepreneurs from our sample attended only one university, which means that they obtained only their bachelor’s degrees.

The Educational Background of Crunchbase Entrepreneurs

Going to university is no longer a prerequisite for getting on in life, but it gives you an opportunity to learn the ropes of the industry you want to work in. Joining the ‘right’ clique by choosing the right university is necessary, because the connections you make while studying there will help you a lot in your future career. According to our research, Stanford is the most popular place to attend among the entrepreneurs with the highest Crunchbase rating (see the table below).

The top 5 universities that have produced the most Crunchbase entrepreneurs:

Name World Rank
(according to the 2017 World University Rankings)
1. Stanford University 3
2. MIT 5
3. University of California, Berkeley 10
4. Carnegie Mellon University 23

5. Duke University

18

(For a list of the top 10 universities and a detailed discussion of this table, see the next section.)

However, school brands have little to no bearing on how you will perform in your future career. To illustrate this thought, let’s consider Stanford as an example. Stanford is leading in churning out successful entrepreneurs not only because it offers an elite degree, but also because it brings together like-minded people who are able to share and reproduce the most successful and effective business practices. And the latter is much more important in your career path than the university brand name. Unique networking opportunities and the support you receive from your community are the reasons why this particular university is able to turn you into a top-notch entrepreneur. Note that two of the world’s most successful CEOs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, famously dropped out of Harvard, which is a ‘Tier 1’ university that can provide you with access to endless connections and resources. 

Yet, we found out that being in the wrong place at the very beginning of your education doesn’t influence your job trajectory. Moreover, we found out that among the most influential entrepreneurs from our sample (those with a Crunchbase rating from 1 to 500), 51.2% graduated from lower-ranking schools (i.e., schools that are outside the top 400). One of these examples is Barack Obama. Almost everyone knows that he received his undergraduate degree from Columbia and his law degree from Harvard. However, his situation is a bit more nuanced than that. Obama began his education at Occidental College. This college in Los Angeles is not even featured in the World University Rankings, and it is ranked 84th among US colleges. Another example is Sergey Brin, who earned his bachelor's degree at the University of Maryland (64th place in the world rankings). Below you can find some more examples of famous people who didn’t get their first degree from ‘Tier 1’ colleges (‘first tier’ universities are those that are placed among the top 50 schools):

Name Crunchbase rating University University rank
Marc Benioff 1 University of Southern California 60
Barack Obama 2 Occidental College 84
Mark Cuban 6 Indiana University, Bloomington 81-90
Marc Andreessen 9 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) Not featured
Diane Greene 12 University of Vermont, Burlington 351-400
CJ Comu 13 Langara College Not featured
Gary Vaynerchuk 14 Mount Ida College 800
Raychel Harvey Jones 18 University of Bristol 71
Robert Kotick 22 Harvard-Westlake School Not featured
Jack Ma 23 Hangzhou Normal University Not featured
Bruno Skoczynski 24 Florida State University 201-250
Michael Mamas 48 The Ohio State University 88
Satya Nadella 49 University of Wisconsin-Madison 45
Oscar Salazar 52 University of Colima 46-50
Bryan Johnson 53 Brigham Young University (BYU) 651-700
Kristopher B. Jones 54 Villanova University 117

Can you imagine any of these folks (including Barack Obama and Sergey Brin) being at a disadvantage because of their college choice? This is exactly the point of our post: getting a good education is less about getting into the best school and more about making the most of whatever you do.

And we are not alone when it comes to such conclusions. For instance, in his recent book, Frank Bruni states that among the American-born CEOs of the companies in the Fortune 500, only 30 of them went to an Ivy League school. That being said, let's take a look at the popularity of the Ivy League Schools and the schools from the ‘Tier 1’ among the Crunchbase entrepreneurs from our sample.

The top 10 high-ranking schools that were attended by Crunchbase entrepreneurs (where they got their bachelor’s degrees):

Name Popularity World Rank (according to the 2017 World University Rankings )
Stanford University 13% 3
Harvard University 7% 6
MIT 6% 5
University of California, Berkeley 4% 10
Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania 4% 13
Cornell University 3% 19
Yale University 2% 12
University of Oxford 2% 1
University of Southern California 1% 60
University of Michigan 1% 21


As you can see, the numbers are quite small. Interestingly, many of the most successful entrepreneurs from our sample (i.e., those with the highest Crunchbase ratings) only studied at one school and don’t have master’s or doctorate degrees.

What is also notable is the percentage of Crunchbase entrepreneurs from our sample who received their bachelor’s degree from an Ivy League college:

  • 11% of the Crunchbase entrepreneurs from our entire sample attended an Ivy League School.
  • 22% of the Crunchbase entrepreneurs with a rating from 1 to 100 attended an Ivy League School. What is also notable here is that among them there are a lot of people over the age of 40. whose age is 40 or greater.
  • 16% of the Crunchbase entrepreneurs with a rating from 100 to 1,000 attended an Ivy League School.

Furthermore, among the entrepreneurs with a Crunchbase rating from 1 to 100:

  • 13% received their first degree from a university that has a ranking lower than 1,000.
  • 11% got their first degree from a university that is not featured in the list of the top 1,000 world universities.

Our results have shown that usually entrepreneurs begin their education at a less prestigious school and then continue it at a top-tier university. If one has degrees beyond a bachelor’s, then they usually opt for a more prestigious school to earn an MBA or a PhD. Yet, the number of entrepreneurs who have a PhD is insignificant. Therefore, the majority of the top company founders in the Crunchbase database didn’t earn a fancy Ivy League degree. Moreover, the number of Crunchbase entrepreneurs who attended two universities made up around 25% of the sample. Among those entrepreneurs, 4% have three universities in their profile, and 0.1% have five or more universities in their profile. And when it comes to the educational background of the most successful entrepreneurs, it does not need to be said that such numbers are small. It is worth mentioning, though, that those top-rated entrepreneurs who have three to five universities in their profile, furthered their education at the top schools like Stanford (third place in the world university rankings), MIT (fifth place) or Carnegie Mellon University (twenty-third place). However, as was already mentioned, the percentage of those who got their PhDs from the Ivy League schools is small. In addition, we looked at the fields of study pursued by the entrepreneurs from the Crunchbase database. Most graduated with an emphasis in business, computer science or engineering.

What Degrees Rock CEOs’ Worlds?

Now let’s move on to the question of university rankings and the value behind the degrees universities offer. We wanted to know what schools the greatest number of Crunchbase entrepreneurs have on their resumes and how university rankings correlate with their ratings. We discovered that there is no correlation between the ratings of the entrepreneurs and the rankings of the university they attended. But the curious thing is that the data shows that a few mid-tier universities are leading in the production of new entrepreneurs. And there may be a specific reason for this.

To judge the quality of an institution you are going to attend, you need to check not just its overall rankings, but its rankings by subject and employability. Additionally, there are different rankings for different stages of your education. To estimate the quality of the program you want to apply to, you need to consider what rating a university has depending on your level of study. In particular, there are rankings for undergraduate schools and graduate schools, as well as for postgraduate studies. Thus, several universities may have gone from underdogs to top dogs in the rankings that we provide in this post due to their leading positions in subject rankings. For instance, if a university’s overall rankings are low, its rankings for certain fields of study can be good enough. An interesting example to illustrate this idea is Kettering University. It has a relatively low overall rating (206th place), yet it is leading in engineering fields (7th place) and it was ranked 15th nationally in 2016. Among the top 100 entrepreneurs from our sample, four people on the list graduated from Kettering University. As you can see, great programs exist within schools that don’t have an Ivy League reputation. The entrepreneurs from our sample seem to know how to find and exploit such programs. Therefore, the main conclusion of our study is that many of the best and brightest entrepreneurs from the Crunchbase database studied at considerably less illustrious places or were even educated outside of the US, but it didn’t prevent them from succeeding in their field.

The moral of these stats is that even if you’ve never attended one of the most elite institutions of higher education, it won’t lessen your chances of having a successful career or degree that will pay. And our point is supported by several previous studies. Not so long ago, the Wall Street Journal published a list of the top 25 universities whose graduates were the top-rated by recruiters. The top five were mid-tier schools: Penn State University, Texas A&M University, the University of Illinois, Purdue and Arizona State. These are all very decent universities, but they are also public schools and hardly as selective as Ivy League schools. If employers don’t hire on the basis of a set of elite educational credentials, does that mean that you won’t be able to earn a high salary? A study conducted by Princeton economists concluded that students who could have been admitted but did not attend an Ivy league school earned the same salaries as the Ivy league graduates. Indeed, a lot of students who get rejected by top-tier schools end up at mid-tier schools, and they do just fine. Howard Schultz got his degree from Northern Michigan University (800th), and now he is the CEO of Starbucks. In addition, according to Wealth-X’s rankings, Boston University (64th) has the 12th highest number of wealthy graduates, right behind Princeton (7th) and the University of Virginia (121st). The truth is that entrepreneurship is the great equalizer: of course, a reputable, brand-name university offers a major boost to your entrepreneurial career, but as you progress in your professional life, your diploma becomes less and less important.

However, the question remains as to where one should go to become a successful CEO/founder. Below you will find a list of universities that most of the entrepreneurs from our sample attended. The curious thing is that there are no universities from the Ivy League among the top ten universities that entrepreneurs with the highest Crunchbase rating graduated from. The rankings that we provide in this post can be used to determine how consistently a given school produces the most successful business leaders.

The top 10 universities that have produced the most Crunchbase entrepreneurs:

Name World Rank
(according to the 2017 World University Rankings)
1. Stanford University 3
2. MIT 5
3. University of California, Berkeley 10
4. Carnegie Mellon University 23
5. Duke University 18
6. NYU 32
7. University of Cambridge 4
8. University of Michigan 21
9. Georgetown University 104
10. University of Chicago 10

Of course, the schools from this list are well known and much spoken about. Yet, none of them belongs to the Ivy League. It is also worth mentioning that the popularity of the universities from this list doesn’t correlate with their places in world ranking tables. As you can see, there are notable differences between our list of institutions that have produced the most Crunchbase entrepreneurs and the World University Rankings. It is true that we find Stanford and MIT at the top, but then we also see Carnegie Mellon University and Duke University before the University of Cambridge, and we spot Georgetown University among the alma maters of the top startup founders and CEOs. Disparities between the two lists show that the number of Crunchbase entrepreneurs from a given university is not necessarily an indicator of its overall quality, but rather the school’s rate of consistency for producing successful businessmen. Therefore, a school’s selectiveness is not synonymous with its worth.

What is most striking about our final list is the breadth of schools it covers. When we looked further down the list of Crunchbase entrepreneurs’ alma maters, we saw Tennessee State University (Oprah Winfrey dropped out of this one to start her famous career in media), the University of Central Oklahoma, Tel Aviv University, McGill University and the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi in the educational profiles of the top 100 Crunchbase entrepreneurs (i.e., entrepreneurs with a Crunchbase rating from 1 to 100). It is a profoundly diverse collection of institutions that also has several colleges and universities that are placed outside the US. Yet, it is important to bear in mind that our top ten list features almost exclusively US higher-learning institutions, with only one of them (the University of Cambridge) being a UK university.  Curiously, we found CalTech and one of the most prestigious universities, the Wharton School (Pennsylvania) holding only the 114th and 121st positions respectively. This means that these elite schools have produced much fewer Crunchbase entrepreneurs than Georgetown University. In other words, there is no pattern. Yet, in so many of our discussions about our ideas of a successful entrepreneur, we insist on finding one. Therefore, the takeaways from this list are that a prestigious degree is not the ticket to a prosperous life and that an Ivy League school cannot guarantee that you will become a CEO.

Conclusion

Nowadays, there are circumstances where brand matters. For instance, firms in the legal and consultancy niches often rely on university names to impress their clients and elevate their prestige. In all the other cases, a brand-name university doesn’t affect your career path. And it’s possible to build an impressive career without a top academic resume. A degree is worth the investment, but you need to choose those universities that have a good standard of education. They don’t have to be among the Ivy League universities or ‘the top 10’ universities in the latest edition of the world university rankings. Also, you need to remember that even if a school has not topped the university’s overall rankings, it can be a leading one in the field you’ve chosen to pursue. There are outstanding minds even at mid-tier universities, and you don’t have to take out hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans to become one of those minds. And our research is yet more proof that your path to a corner office may just as well lie through Penn State University rather than the University of Pennsylvania.

Ultimately, you need to get an education that will maximize your own definition of achievement and success. We at SchoolApply offer you a range of opportunities to find a school that meets your needs, so you can make a decision that suits you best.