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No one asks the top CEOs where they went to college

GM’s global gamble to fund a big bet on the future
General Motors CEO Mary Barra at the 2017 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Barra went to Kettering University in Flint, Mich.
(Romain Blanquart / TNS)
Bloomberg

The No. 1 company in last year’s Fortune 500 was Walmart Inc., with $500 billion in revenue. That would make its chief executive, Douglas McMillon, a pretty important and powerful executive, don’t you think? Can you guess where he went to college? The University of Arkansas. He has an MBA, too. From the University of Tulsa.

Second on the list was Exxon Mobil Corp. Its CEO, Darren Woods, went to Texas A&M. Third was Berkshire Hathaway Inc., run by the man many consider the greatest investor who ever lived: Warren Buffett. He spent three years at the Wharton School before transferring to the University of Nebraska, from which he graduated. He was then rejected by Harvard Business School. (He got his MBA from Columbia Business School, where he famously learned from the great value investor Ben Graham.)

Fourth was Apple Inc., whose chief executive, Tim Cook, is arguably the most important executive in all of tech. He went to a university better known for football than academics: Auburn.

Are you sensing a pattern here? General Electric Co.’s Lawrence Culp went to Washington College in Chestertown, Md. Cardinal Health Inc.’s Michael Kaufmann went to Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio. AT&T Inc.’s Randall Stephenson went to the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond, Okla. General Motors Co.’s Mary Barra went to Kettering University in Flint, Mich. (Kettering used to be the General Motors Institute before it was spun off from GM in the early 1980s.)

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Of the CEOs of the top 20 companies in last year’s Fortune 500, exactly one — Amazon.com Inc.’s Jeff Bezos — went to an Ivy League school (Princeton). And that’s not all. We tend to think of the founders of technology companies as having all gone to Stanford University (or dropping out of Harvard University). And yes, many of them did. But Michael Dell went to the University of Texas. Steve Jobs dropped out of Reed College in Portland, Ore. Marc Andreessen went to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. So did Larry Ellison, though he never graduated.

When I see something like the college admissions scandal that broke on Tuesday — with dozens of parents arrested for resorting to bribery to get their kids into a prestigious school like Yale or Georgetown — I shake my head in dismay. Not because of the criminality; I mean, bribing a women’s soccer coach to pretend your kid is an athlete is more comedy than tragedy. And not because of the sheer stupidity, either. Didn’t anybody tell these rich parents that with their wealth all they had to do was make a sizable donation to get their kid into a “good school,” no matter how poor their grades? (Exhibit A: Jared Kushner, who got into Harvard after his father pledged to make a $2.5-million donation.)

No, what dismays me is that these parents and their children — just like millions of elite parents and their children up and down the East and West coasts — seem to view getting into a top-ranked school, preferably an Ivy League university, as an absolute key to a successful life. Yes, there are powerful reasons, starting with status anxiety, that underlie the obsession with name-brand schools. And yes, as several high-brow commentators have noted, getting your kid into an elite school is a way for the so-called meritocracy to replicate itself into the next generation.

But the elites can’t say that out loud. So the way they justify their obsession is by saying that an education from a top school — not just the Ivies, but the Dukes, the Berkeleys, the Stanfords, the Amhersts — gives their graduates a leg up on life. And perhaps, in a status-obsessed profession like finance, it does. But for the vast majority of us, it won’t. And it doesn’t. If you don’t believe me, just look at that list of CEOs again.

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Maybe a Harvard diploma will give a graduate an easier shot at landing a first job out of school. Maybe. But that’s really the only advantage, and it doesn’t last long. Once you’ve landed the job, you have to perform. If you don’t, your Harvard degree isn’t going to be worth the parchment it’s printed on. And if you do perform, nobody is going to much care that you went to the University of Central Oklahoma.

I had this same thought, about the pointlessness of all the anxiety around college admissions, when the lawsuit against Harvard claiming it discriminated against Asian applicants went to trial last fall. I don’t want Harvard to discriminate either, but those who were complaining about Harvard’s practices had very high test scores. Status aside, why should they care if they didn’t get into Harvard? And why should we? They no doubt went to some other top school and did just as well as if they had gone to Harvard. Maybe better. (The plaintiff, a group called Students for Fair Admissions, didn’t put any Asian on the stand who had been turned down by Harvard, so it is impossible to know where they ultimately went to college.)

It’s the hoariest of cliches, but it’s true: What you get out of your education is what you put into it. That is especially true when you enter a university, because you are usually on your own for the first time. You can make your own decisions about whether to attend that early-morning class or sleep through it. Every school has excellent teachers; if you’re motivated, you’ll find them. The qualities you exhibit in college — ambition or laziness; attention to detail or sloppiness; being success-oriented or content with mediocrity — will likely be the qualities you bring to your life after college. They will matter a lot more than where you went to school when you were 18.

In his book “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be,” columnist Frank Bruni describes the obsession with getting into Ivy League schools as “madness.” He’s right. “A sort of mania has taken hold, and its grip seems to grow tighter and tighter,” he adds.

“There is no single juncture, no one crossroads, on which everything hinges,” Bruni concludes. I’m sure that in their own lives, those who were arrested Tuesday had enough life experience to understand that. Had they only been able to see that the same would hold true for their children, they would have saved themselves an awful lot of trouble.

Joe Nocera writes a column for Bloomberg.


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