The Billionaire Dropout Club

Last Updated Jan 26, 2011 2:27 PM EST

Before Gerry Laybourne co-founded Oxygen Media Network and sold it for nearly $1 billion, she attended Vassar College, where participating in student government, she says, first exposed her to the management skills that would catapult her to entrepreneurial success and wealth beyond the dreams of avarice.

That is the story told by Vassar's official newspaper, The Miscellany News, in a piece that similarly portrays the backgrounds of entrepreneurs Christopher English, a hedge fund manager, and technology consulting firm founder Anthony Friscia. The premise is that leadership roles in extracurricular activities such as student government and athletics prepared these students for running organizations later on.

It's a believable premise. Still, to test it, the Debunker checked the educational backgrounds of the top 10 self-made members of the latest Forbes 400 list of the country's wealthiest people. The self-made rule disqualified four offspring of Sam Walton and the two sons of Fred C. Koch, founder of Koch Industries, all of whom inherited great wealth.

The most common educational background of this high-dollar decapod is not a Vassar degree. It is not a prominent role in extracurricular activities at the university level. The typical self-made member of the nation's richest 10 people is a college dropout. Here's the ranked list:

1. Bill Gates: Dropped out of Harvard after a year and a half.

2. Warren Buffett: Received a bachelor's degree from University of Nebraska and a master's in business from Columbia University.

3. Larry Ellison: Dropped out twice, from the University of Illinois and then the University of Chicago.

4. Michael Bloomberg: Received an engineering degree from Johns Hopkins University and an MBA from Harvard University.

5. Larry Page: Got an engineering degree from the University of Michigan, then entered Stanford University's doctoral program in computer science. According to Stanford's website, Page didn't finish his Ph.D., leaving after receiving a master's degree.

6. Sergey Brin: Receive a bachelor's degree from the University of Maryland, after which his story parallels fellow Google co-founder Page.

7. Sheldon Adelson: Dropped out of City College of New York.

8. George Soros: Took a bachelor's degree from the London School of Economics.

9. Michael Dell: Dropped out of the University of Texas at Austin after one year.

10. Steve Ballmer: Got a bachelor's in applied math from Harvard University, then entered Stanford University's graduate business school before dropping out.

Five of the 10 richest self-made Americans dropped out of college before getting any degree. Three others, if you count Brin's and Page's interrupted Ph.D. programs, left later without completing planned graduate degrees. Things don't get any better for the "you-gotta-have-a-degree" crowd if you go to No. 11: Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen dropped out of Washington State University.

There are a few other things you could get from this list. The biggest is, you'd better attend college, even if you never graduate. It's not a bad idea to be Jewish, but don't be a woman, black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American or Pacific Islander. It helps to be book smart -- most of these multi-billionaires, even the dropouts, were recognized as outstanding students. Attending an elite university, whether you finish or not, seems to give a leg up. And when you're picking majors, look hard at engineering, computer science, finance, economics or business.

As far as extracurricular activities, the record is muddy. Gates has said that he participated in nothing extracurricular while Ballmer, who attended Harvard at the same time, was a leader of several campus groups. In fact, Ballmer is the only one on this list who is said to have been a big man on campus outside class.

Of course, these mega-entrepreneurs are outliers. By their nature they are exceptions to the rule. The Census Bureau says college graduates earn nearly twice as much per year, on average, as those who complete only high school. So maybe going to Vassar and running for student body president is a good idea, even if it doesn't put you in the company of Gates et al.

Mark Henricks has reported on business, technology and other topics for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, and other leading publications long enough to lay somewhat legitimate claim to being The Article Authority. Follow him on Twitter @bizmyths.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Paul Lowry, CC2.0

  • Mark Henricks

    Mark Henricks' reporting on business and other topics has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Inc., Entrepreneur, and many other leading publications. He lives in Austin, Texas, where myth looms as large as it does anywhere.