Back in January 2012, I wrote this piece about the education levels of the members of the Forbes 400 – the richest people in America.

I won’t tread back through the trope that formal and higher education is a waste of time – an idea supported by the isolation and celebration of stories of high school and college dropouts amassing huge hoards of money (again, click here for that).

I just reviewed the 2017 Forbes 400 and have updated information about the education levels of the people who made this year’s list (“Doctorate, Degree, or Dropout“).

Minimum net worth to make the list this year: $2,000,000,000.
Average net worth of the group: $6,700,000,000.

Take a look at how they compare to the US population overall and how the numbers compare to my roundup from nearly 6 years ago.

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Education Levels of the Richest People in America

Spoiler: the richest people in America are far more highly educated than the US population.

Here’s how the Forbes 400 compares, per the print edition of the magazine.

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The US population includes far greater shares of people in the four lowest levels. Their shares range from 1.5x higher (College Dropout) to 20x higher (Associate’s Degree).

The Forbes 400 group includes far greater shares of people in the four highest levels. Their shares range from 2x higher (Bachelor’s Degree) to 8x higher (J.D. and M.D.).

These numbers speak for themselves. But to visually represent it even more simply, I made two plain pie charts …

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80% of the Forbes 400 have Bachelor’s Degrees or higher. Only 33% of the US population does.


2017 vs 2011: Education Levels of the Forbes 400

While reviewing these numbers, I took a look back at my post from January 2012.

I folded a couple levels together to make comparable the 2017 numbers to the 2011 numbers.

For example, “High School Only” was a category in 2011; I combined 2017’s High School Dropout and High School Graduate to get the new number. Also, the 2011 numbers had law and medical degrees separate, but I put them together to compare to 2017’s J.D./M.D.

The result: the Forbes 400 are approximately equally educated in 2017 than in 2011. The share of people without college degrees did climb a few percentage points. I’m personally curious to see these numbers in a few more years.

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Final Stats and Notes

The information here was pulled from page 24 of the print edition of Forbes dated November 14, 2017. In the text accompanying the data, it’s noted that the Forbes 400 are also far more likely to attend a “super-elite university.”

23% of the Forbes 400 have an undergraduate degree from an Ivy League institution. This is true of just 0.8% of the US population at large. That share is 28.7x higher for the richest Americans.

And many of the celebrated dropouts, like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, dropped out of “super-elite” universities. Both Gates and Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard.

Here’s a list of the 10 schools that produce the most Forbes 400 billionaires. Note: the University of Michigan is among them.

If you want some context and commentary for this information, I’ll simply refer you to the story I published here nearly six years ago – and the comments it’s collected over the years.

The main point here: a college degree isn’t necessary for financial success, but it’s highly and positively correlated with wealth.

And not just at the billionaire level. On average, higher education levels produce higher median earnings and lower unemployment rates across the US population.

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Dropping out to massive success is an attractive concept, especially in “the land of opportunity.” And it’s possible.

But it’s the rare exception to the norm.



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The Union on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor – where JFK launched the Peace Corps in 1960.