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Strength and growth come only through continuous effort and struggle.

— Napoleon Hill

College Dropout Success Myth

When Facebook founder and college dropout Mark Zuckerberg was asked to give a commencement address at Harvard, he asked for advice from Bill Gates.

Zuckerberg said, “They know we didn’t actually graduate, right?”

To which Gates replied, “Oh, that is the best part! They actually give you a degree!”

This recent exchange between two famous Harvard dropouts might lead you to think college doesn’t matter. Moreover, numerous media stories and even famous billionaires are glamorizing dropouts or encouraging kids to skip college entirely.

While it is true that there are successful college dropouts, statistically speaking, they are not the norm. However, researchers in education and talent found the vast majority of the country’s success stories are college graduates, such as Sheryl Sandberg (Harvard), Jeff Bezos (Princeton) and Marissa Mayer (Stanford).

The myth of the mega-successful college dropout

In a study of 11,745 successful individuals from across the U.S., the vast majority had attended college – many of them attended elite schools.

College Dropout Myth Graph
The Conversation, CC-BY-ND
Source: Wai & Rindermann 

Researchers investigated how many of the wealthiest and most influential people graduated from college. They studied 11,745 U.S. leaders, including CEOs, federal judges, politicians, multi-millionaires/billionaires, business leaders, and the most globally influential people.

They included the eight Ivy League schools, plus many of the top national universities and liberal arts colleges consistently high in the U.S. News rankings for both undergraduate and graduate education.

 

Ninety-four percent of these U.S. leaders attended college, and about 50 percent graduated from an elite school. Though almost everyone went to college, elite school attendance varied widely. For instance, only 20.6 percent of House members and 33.8 percent of 30-millionaires attended an elite school, but over 80 percent of  Forbes’ most powerful people did. For whatever reason, about twice as many senators – 41 percent – as House members went to elite schools.

The number one reason why people are successful is access to mentors. In the early years, those mentors are professors, those are other students in college around you.
Daymond John

Approximately, 2 to 5 percent of all U.S. undergraduates went to one of the elite schools in our study. The people from in the study attended elite schools at rates well above typical expectations.

Do elite schools matter?

This year, elite schools saw an increase in applications and selectivity. Research indicates there is no difference in adult income between students who attended highly selective schools and students with similar SAT scores who attended less selective schools. At least for long-term earnings, where you go may not be critical, as long as you attend classes and graduate.

There are hundreds of careers which don’t require a degree. And they all share one thing in common. They require results, and in many cases, years of hard work and study to achieve success.

Ryan Guina Education and Wealth: You Don’t Need a College Degree, But You Need an Education

Attending a high-profile college will provide you with networks and a powerful brand. Therefore, if you have the talent and motivation to become an elite member of the U.S. society, an elite college diploma might help.

While looking at over 11,000 successful leaders, they rarely encountered people who came from extremely poor or disadvantaged backgrounds. Helping disadvantaged talented students enter elite schools could promote diversity among future leaders.

College dropout success is not the norm. Princeton University
Princeton University had a record-setting number of applicants for its class of 2021.
Sindy Lee / Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

College matters

Admittedly, the educational path of the cream of the crop may not apply to most people. So, going to college may not be the right or even the best route for everyone. However, if you’re a student thinking about not going to college or considering dropping out, remember that even Gates and Zuckerberg got into college. Also if you’re not aiming for mega-success, doing the work to get into and graduate from college today may open important doors.

...thinking about not going to college or considering dropping out, remember that even Gates and Zuckerberg got into college.

Perhaps in the future, a college degree may not be as significant to employers. But for now, college dropouts who rule the world are rare exceptions – not the rule.

If you need some help preparing for your classes, please check out these tips on how to study.

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