Why College? Money or Knowledge?

Why do you want to go to college? Why did you go to college? What is the purpose of college?

These are not idle questions. I often look back to the days when I was making a decision about going to college. I’ve thought about my decision-making process and wondered if I had dreams of becoming rich, developing a special level of knowledge in a particular field, or just going because it was the thing to do. The answer, which isn’t all that unusual for an 18-year-old, is that I went to college because I was recruited for a sport: tennis. Back in my day, at my high school, if you were recruited for a sport other than football or basketball, that was remarkable. It was hard to resist a situation like that because you had ideals about some other path through (or reason to go) to college.

Originally, I wanted to go to a tech school. I took an admissions test for a place called Computer Systems Institute and was admitted. This was back in the days when mainframe computers were the size of small houses and generated enough heat to melt glaciers. I often wonder how my life’s path would have developed had I moved onto the (almost)  “ground floor” of the computer era. It wasn’t to be, though. I went to a four-year college, played my tennis, and the long and winding road that brought me to where I am today began.

Now, before you bail from reading this — “Geez, Dave, not another ‘looking back’ tome about your life during those days when the earth was still cooling!” — I do have some reasonable “new” information to share. For the sake of those of you out there who are high school seniors applying to college right now, or those of you high school juniors who are pondering the rationale for going to college, let’s assume that your motivation is financial; you want to earn a lot of money in your lifetime. Fair enough. Although I happen to think that wanting to get rich is not the best reason to go to college, for the sake of argument (and for the sake of the article I’m going to discuss), let’s assuming that you’re at least thinking about a monetary motivation.

pile of money

The article I’m talking about is entitled Most Popular College Degrees Earned By Millionaires, by John A. Byrne, who is Chairman & Editor-in-Chief at C-Change Media Inc. Assuming that your primary reason for going to college is to make a pile of money in your lifetime, you may be interested to know where the odds favor you reaching that goal. 

Byrne’s first sentence is a bit depressing, though:

Having a net worth of one million dollars may not be what it used to be.

This is a true statement. In our inflated world, being a billionaire (with a “b”) might get you noticed. Plain old millionaires are a dime a dozen (sticking with the money theme). However, he continues and gets to the point:

But it’s still a mark of success for those who are able to achieve it. Which college degrees helped to produce the most millionaires?

Now we’re getting somewhere. The strategy here for money-oriented college aspirants is twofold: (1) chart your path — which degree direction should you follow? and (2) at which school should you follow it? Byrne says:

The answer to that question came out … in a new survey and the MBA degree held up surprisingly well in the millionaire sweepstakes. The survey reveals that engineering degrees produce the most millionaires, followed by MBA, economics and law degrees. The review, conducted by wealth management magazine SPEAR’s and consultancy company WealthInsight, assesses some 70,000 millionaires worldwide (individuals with over U.S. $1 million in assets–excluding primary residences), to reveal their most popular degrees and top-attended universities.

So, if you’re taking notes, write down “MBA,” “engineer,” and “lawyer.” Do any of those resonate with your plan? Byrne qualifies what may seem like a straightforward analysis:

… Many of those engineering majors made their millions in entrepreneurship, points out WealthInsight’s Oliver Williams in a statement. “…Interestingly, few of these degrees turn out to be outright vocational; Most engineering graduates, for example, are not engineers but entrepreneurs,” he says. “The same goes for most law and politics graduates, who owe their fortunes not to practicing their professions but climbing the ranks of the financial services sector.”

To me, this implies that it’s not what you know, per se, but rather, it’s what you do with what you know. That’s a central tenet for entrepreneurs. Your attitude can also establish your altitude, as the old saying goes. Now, for an interesting graphic from Byrne:

Byrne chart

… Not surprisingly, Harvard University and Stanford University top the table for millionaires’ most-attended universities. University of California, Columbia University and University of Oxford round out the top five.

Is it any surprise that the schools listed here are those at the top of most college rankings, year after year after year?

There’s more than just brute-force head knowledge and diploma prestige provided by these schools.

… SPEAR’s editor Josh Sepro explained in a statement that top schools equip their millionaires with more than academics: “The universities which dominate are exactly the ones you’d expect, not just because of the quality of the education but because of the self-confidence they instill in their students. They also have strong alumni networks which give their students a leg up when they move into the world of work.”

So, if you’re plotting a path through higher education that you would like to take you to the end of the rainbow (isn’t that where the pot of gold is supposed to be?), then the snapshot data Byrne presents should get you started in a positive general direction.

By the way, if you want to wade deeper into this, the full top 100 list of global universities appears in SPEAR’s story.

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Be sure to check out all my college-related articles at College Confidential.