The Role of Elite Education for
|Fortune 500 directors*||Fortune 500 CEOs|
|White males||3213 (74.4%)||122|
|White females||579 (13.4%)||50|
|African Americans||289 (6.7%)||18|
|Asian Americans||103 (2.4)%||38|
In his classic book, The Power Elite, C. Wright Mills studied the educational backgrounds of the people who occupied the "top two or three command posts" in the 100 or so top corporations based on "sales and capital" in 1950 (p. 126). Drawing on "six or seven careful studies of such executives," including the work of William Miller, Suzanne Keller, and Mabel Newcomer, Mills concluded that these executives were not at all a miscellaneous collection of Americans, but "a quite uniform social type which has had exceptional advantages of origin and training" (p. 127). These men (virtually all were men, and, in fact, almost all were white Protestant men) were much more likely to be from urban than rural backgrounds, and they were very unlikely to have been born outside the USA (only 6%, compared to 15% of the population of white men of comparable ages). Mills also found that 60% were college graduates (only 7% of the white men of comparable ages were college graduates).
Writing thirty years later, Useem and Karabel (1986) updated these findings, and noted that, for the 2,729 senior managers at 208 major corporations that they studied, graduation from college "was approaching universality among senior managers in large American corporations" (p. 184). Still, 16.6% of their sample either never attended college or started and then dropped out, so it was still a ways to universality — only 83.4% of their sample had earned bachelor's degrees.
In my look at the Fortune 500 directors in 2011, I found that graduation from college is now just about universal — 98.4%. For the smaller sample of CEOs, 95.1% had graduated from college, a figure that is much closer to "universality" than it was in the 1980s.
Some of the exceptions among the CEOs are revealing. Consider, for example, the case of Michael Dell, the founder and CEO of Dell (#51 on the Fortune list in 2013, but now a private company). He grew up in Texas, where his father was an orthodontist and his mother a stockbroker. He went to a public high school (but one that was rated as one of the "ten most posh high schools in the country" because it serves "one of the richest areas in Houston, in Texas, and even in the entire country" -- see "Ten Most Posh…2011"). He then started college at the University of Texas, as a pre-med student, but during his first year he dropped out to focus full-time on his emerging computer business. Like Bill Gates (who had attended Lakeside School, a tony prep school in Seattle, and then dropped out of Harvard), Dell had parents who were well-off, and he himself had received an excellent secondary school education. Both were savvy enough to know that they had to seize the moment to take advantage of a great business opportunity, and both probably understood that they could easily return to college if necessary. In the future, the universality of college educations for directors and CEO's should make it necessary to examine the "exceptions" very closely so that the category of "those who did not attend college" does not become a new talking point for the Horatio Alger myth that is actively sponsored by the Horatio Alger Society through its annual award to one or another mythical Horatio Alger (see Pessin, 1984, and Zweigenhaft, 2004).
However, for all the mythmaking, not all of the exceptions — those who did not graduate from college — grew up with such economic privilege. For example, Larry Ellison the founder and CEO of Oracle, was given up by his mother for adoption to her sister and her husband. He was raised by them, and didn't meet his biological mother again until he was 48. His adoptive parents lived on the South Side of Chicago in a middle-class Jewish neighborhood. He started at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, but dropped out during his sophomore year. He started school again at the University of Chicago, but again dropped out.
Useem and Karabel (1986) reported that 38.8% of their sample earned a BA only and that 11.2% earned them at one of the 11 top-ranked schools on their list. In the sample of 2011 corporate directors, I found that even more of them had earned post-graduate degrees, so the percentage of those with "only" a BA was down to 30.8%. And as in the case of the Useem and Karabel (1986) study, about 11% of those directors had attended the top-ranked schools (10.7%, to be exact). In the sample of CEOs, 42.4% had earned only a bachelor's degree, and 13.8% of them had attended one of the schools on Useem and Karabel's (1986) list, a figure that is once again quite similar to what Useem and Karabel found.
|Fortune 500 directors||Fortune 500 CEOs|
|White males||31.3% (n=1717)||21.3% (n=122)|
|White females||38.6% (n=487)||37.2% (n=43)|
|African Americans||24.5% (n=265)||29.4% (n=17)|
|Latinos||28% (n=100)||24% (n=20)|
|Asian Americans||34.2% (n=76)||25% (n=16)|
|χ2 = 17.90|
df = 4
p < .001
r = -.01
|χ2 = 2.87|
df = 4
As can be seen in Table 2, 32% of the Fortune 500 directors had earned degrees from these schools, with some distinctive differences among the subgroups. Notably, the lowest percentages were for the Latinos (28%) and the African Americans (25%), and the highest percentage was for the white women (39%); 31.3% of the white male control group had attended one of these schools. For the sample of CEOs, 28% had attended one of those schools; the white males were the least likely to have attended one of these schools (21.3%), and the white women were the most likely (37.2%). The differences among the subgroups in this smaller CEO sample were not statistically significant, and even for the larger sample of Fortune 500 directors, although the differences are statistically significant, the effect size is tiny, and so these differences are not practically significant.
As can be seen in Table 3, in my two samples 35.8% of the 2011 Fortune 500 directors and 28.5% of the CEOs had earned MBAs. This was considerably higher than the 17.1% that Useem and Karabel found in the mid-1980s. More recently, Smith-Barrow (2013) provided data on the educational backgrounds of the CEOs at the top 100 companies on the Fortune list, and Karsten, Brooke, and Marr (2014) looked at the educational backgrounds of the 46 women who were CEOs of Fortune 1000 companies as of late 2014. Both studies provided data on whether these CEOs had earned undergraduate degrees, MBAs, law degrees, and if they had attended Ivy League schools.
The figures on MBAs reported in Smith-Barrow's sample of Fortune 100 CEOs (57%) and in Karsten, Brooke and Marr's (2014) sample (71%) of Fortune 1000 women CEOs were even higher than those in the two samples I looked at. Although I am surprised by how high these figures are, it is clear that in the years following 1986 earning an MBA became part of a much more traveled educational pathway to the top of the corporate world.
|Completed MBA program|
|Useem and Karabel (1986)||17.1%|
|Karsten, Brooke and Marr (2014),|
current women Fortune 1000 CEOs
|Smith-Barrow (2013), Fortune 100 CEOs||57%|
|Fortune 500 Directors, 2011 (n=2329)||35.8%|
|Fortune 500 CEOs (n=205)||28.5%|
When I looked at what schools the 2011 directors had attended, I found that 57%, a majority, had graduated from one of the schools on Useem and Karabel's list of top MBA programs, but this 57% is well below the 82% who had gone to those schools in the Useem and Karabel study. Far more had degrees from Harvard (200) than any of the other schools, with a cluster of schools including Chicago, Columbia, and Stanford contending for second place (with between 35 and 40 graduates from each). Moreover, there were striking patterns among the subgroups. As can be seen in Table 4, the Asian American directors were far more likely than those in the other groups to have earned MBAs (55.3%), and they were the most likely of those in the various subgroups to have attended one of the 11 schools on Useem and Karabel's list (34.7%). As can also be seen in Table 4, there were no meaningful differences among the smaller subsamples of CEOs.
|Completed MBA degree||Degree from elite MBA program*||Completed MBA degree||Degree from elite MBA program*|
|White males||37.6% (n=1732)||20.1%||28.4% (n=109)||13.8%|
|White females||31.4% (n=493)||17.8%||37.2% (n=43)||14.0%|
|African Americans||33.7% (n=267)||10.9%||29.4% (n=17)||17.6%|
|Latinos||28% (n=100)||15%||35% (n=20)||24%|
|Asian Americans||55.3% (n=76)||34.7%||28% (n=16)||6.2%|
|ALL||35.6% (n=2329)||20.2%||31.2% (n=205)||16.6%|
|χ2 = 22.63|
df = 4
p < .001
r = .002
|χ2 = 28.24|
df = 8
p < .001
r = .01
|χ2 = 6.85|
df = 8
p < .55
As can be seen in Table 5, 14.0% of the sample of Fortune 500 directors had gone to law school — a figure that is slightly below the 17.4% that Useem and Karabel found. As was the case in their earlier study, slightly less than half had gone to one of the elite law schools.
The subgroups differed significantly, with the primary outlier being Asian Americans: they were, by far, the least likely to have earned law degrees (only two of the 76 Asian American directors, or 2.6%; both had earned a law degree from elite law schools on the list). In contrast, over 19% of the African American and Latino directors had earned law degrees, with slightly more than half in each case having attended one of the elite law schools).
|Completed MBA degree||Degree from elite law school*||Completed MBA degree||Degree from elite law school*|
|White males||13.6% (n=1737)||5.2%||11.9% (n=109)||8.3%|
|White females||12.6% (n=493)||5.5%||2.3% (n=43)||0%|
|African Americans||19.1% (n=267)||10.1%||35.3% (n=17)||29.4%|
|Latinos||19% (n=100)||13%||5% (n=20)||0%|
|Asian Americans||2.6% (n=76)||2.6%||0% (n=16)||0%|
|ALL||14.0% (n=2637)||6.6%||10.2% (n=206)||6.8%|
|χ2 = 17.19|
df = 4
p < .002
r = .003
|χ2 = 20.29|
df = 4
p < .001
r = .05
|χ2 = 17.29|
df = 4
p < .002
|χ2 = 19.76|
df = 4
p < .001
What about the CEOs? Had they gone to law school? In our sample of Fortune 500 CEOs, only 10.2% had completed law degrees, fewer than in The U.S. News and World Report study of CEOs at the top 100 Fortune companies (20%) or the study of the women CEOs at Fortune 1000 companies (also 20%). As can be seen in Table 5, there were differences among the groups: more than one third of the African American CEOs had earned law degrees (6 of 17, or 35.3%), and 11.9% of the 109 white male CEOs, but none of the 20 Latino CEOs, none of the 16 Asian American CEOs, and only one of the 43 white women CEOs had earned law degrees.
As shown in Table 6, I looked at those who had earned one of three advanced degrees other than MBAs or law degrees: masters degrees (but not MBAs), Ph.D.s, and M.D.s. In the sample of Fortune 500 directors, 23.1% had earned at least one of these advanced degrees, more than twice the percentage in the Useem and Karabel study. These were mostly master's degrees (over 400), but also many who had earned Ph.D.'s (230) and a surprising number (to me) who had earned MDs (54). As can be seen in Table 6, there were clear differences among the subgroups, with the white men the least likely to have earned these degrees (18.5%) and the African Americans (36%) and Asian Americans (36.8%) the most likely.
|White males||18.5% (n=1731)||14.7% (n=109)|
|White females||30.5% (n=465)||11.6% (n=43)|
|African Americans||36.0% (n=261)||23.5% (n=17)|
|Latinos||24.7% (n=97)||15% (n=20)|
|Asian Americans||36.8% (n=76)||31.2% (n=16)|
|ALL||23.1% (n=2630)||16.1 (n=205)|
|χ2 = 67.92|
df = 4
p < .001
r = .13
|χ2 = 4.23|
df = 4
p < .38
In the sample of CEOs, though the overall differences were not statistically significant, the same pattern held: the African Americans and the Asians were the most likely to have earned these degrees, and the white men were among the subgroups least likely to have earned these degrees.
Finally, in Table 7, I have combined all post-graduate degrees (MBA, law degrees, and other degrees). As can be seen, the Asian Americans were the most likely to have earned one or more of these degrees (84%), and the African Americans were next (83.1%). The white males were the least likely to have done so (65.1%), but notably a substantial majority of the directors in all of the groups had earned at least one post-graduate degree. The same general pattern held for the CEOs: the Asian Americans and African Americans were the most likely to have earned at least one of these degrees and the white men were the least likely to have done so.
|Fortune 500 directors, all post graduate degrees||Fortune 500 CEOs, all post-graduate degrees|
|White males||65.1% (n=1724)||54.1% (n=109)|
|White females||73.5% (n=465)||53.5% (n=43)|
|African Americans||83.1% (n=261)||88.2% (n=17)|
|Latinos||72.2% (n=97)||55% (n=20)|
|Asian Americans||84.0% (n=75)||62.5% (n=16)|
|ALL||69.2% (n=2622)||57.6% (n=205)|
|χ2 = 49.74|
df = 4
p < .001
r = .12
|χ2 = 7.58|
df = 4
p < .11
Even with all that can be said for the enduring nature of the power elite and the power structure, there have been some changes over time. Today, with a few noteworthy exceptions, all of the directors and CEOs have earned undergraduate degrees. For the men and women who serve as CEOs and directors of Fortune 500 companies, graduating from college has definitely approached universality. Twice as many of the Fortune 500 directors (35%) and almost as many of the CEOs (28.5%).now have MBAs than was true in the past.
Then, too, there are now clear differences in the degrees earned by those in the various groups that were studied. White male corporate directors were more likely than African American or Latino directors but less likely than white women or Asian American directors to have earned degrees from prestigious undergraduate schools (Table 2), but they were the least likely group to have earned post graduate degrees (Tables 6 and 7). The white women directors and CEOs were the most likely to have earned degrees from prestigious undergraduate schools (Table 2), but they were unlikely to have earned law degrees (Table 5). The African American directors were the least likely to have earned degrees from the prestigious schools on the U.S. News and World Report list, but they were the most likely to have earned post-graduate degrees (Table 7) and, especially, law degrees (Table 5).
If you are like me and graduated from a public high school, you were probably surprised to learn that so many of your fellow undergraduates at places like Wesleyan -- where I was an undergraduate in the 1960s -- had gone to prep schools. At Wesleyan at that time, about one third of the students had gone to prep schools, which at first puzzled me, for in my family, the assumption was that if you had to go away to a private school, it meant that you were a juvenile delinquent and needed straightening out. And how did we know who had gone to which schools? In those days, many schools had what were called "facebooks" that included the pictures of and some brief biographical information about one's classmates (yes, that's where the term facebook comes from).
I later learned more about some of these schools when I did a study of the graduates of a program for low-income people of color, the A Better Chance (ABC) program. Founded in 1963, ABC has sent thousands of promising youngsters from economically impoverished backgrounds to hundreds of private secondary schools, including the most socially elite boarding schools in the country. I came to realize that there are prep schools and there are boarding schools; there are boarding schools and there are those that E. Digby Baltzell (1958, p. 306) identified as the "leading Protestant boarding schools in America," from which Cookson and Persell drew what they called "the select 16" (Cookson and Persell, 1985, p. 43); there's the select 16, and then there are the six very socially prominent schools that some scholars have referred to as "St. Grottlesex" (by which they mean St. George's, St. Mark's, St. Paul's, Groton, Kent, and Middlesex, see, for example, Levine, 1980, p. 68). As I visited some schools to interview the headmasters and others who had been involved with ABC in its early years, I gradually learned more about them.
The ABC success stories are many. Among those you might have read about are Deval Patrick, the former Governor of Massachusetts, an ABC graduate of Milton (1974), and, more recently, Michelle Roberts, the head of the players' union for the National Basketball Association (NBA), a 1973 graduate of The Masters School. A visit to the ABC web site, or a look at the second edition of our book on the ABC program, Blacks in the White Elite: Will The Progress Continue? (Zweigenhaft and Domhoff, 2003), will guide you to many others.
After the first edition of that book was published (Zweigenhaft and Domhoff, 1991), I was asked to speak at a few of these schools, and I learned even more in the process. In other words, these visits also became the occasion for what might be considered casual field work, a chance for me to ask many questions.
So that is why I came to believe that we need to do more and better studies of these prep schools. Hopefully, this paper might turn into a first step in a larger and more challenging project. Prep schools may provide the pipeline to the elite colleges and universities even more than is generally realized. Trying to study the pathways that have led men and women to the power elite has various methodological challenges, one of which is that people in power don't talk much about the privileges they grew up with, including their attendance at elite boarding schools.
This is especially true for politicians. Because elite boarding schools are thought of as bastions of privilege, and politicians typically claim to represent "the people," it is not surprising that politicians rarely acknowledge their boarding school backgrounds. Consider the six men who were on the Democratic and Republican presidential tickets in 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012. How often did George W. Bush talk about Andover, Al Gore talk about St. Albans, John Kerry talk about St. Paul's, Obama talk about Punahou, John McCain talk about the Episcopal School, or George Romney talk about Cranbrook School? It is no coincidence that so many of the country's Presidents (including FDR and JFK) and serious presidential contenders went to elite boarding schools. Despite their claims to the contrary, as the title of one of the best books about prep schools suggests, these schools are about "preparing for power" (Cookson and Persell 1985).
Therefore, it would be very useful for a more fine-grained study of the American power structure to be able to study the percentage of directors and CEOs who attended private versus public schools, schools on Domhoff's list, schools on Baltzell's list, or the St. Grottlesex schools. This is especially the case because there is evidence that the graduates of those prep schools are very well represented at the most elite Ivy League colleges. For example, Yaqub (2002) looked at the 100 secondary schools that were most likely to send students to Harvard, Yale or Princeton between 1998 and 2001, and she found that 90 of the 100 were private schools. Among those that sent more than 15% of their graduates to one of these three Ivy League schools were Groton (17.9%), Milton Academy (15.8%) and Andover (15.7%). It's also notable and important that a number of elite schools in New York City, like Brearly (20.9%) and Collegiate (20%), are hugely over-represented in the Ivy League, which may mean that the rich and powerful are now just as likely, or more likely, to have their children educated where they live, not in isolated boarding schools as in the old days. Similarly, Laneri (2010) looked at the rates of admission to several Ivy League schools, MIT, and Stanford, and found that 20 private schools, mostly boarding schools, but also some day schools in Boston, Los Angeles, and New York, placed, on average, 33% of their students in this "Ivy/MIT/Stanford pipeline."
But corporate executives are hesitant to reveal that they have attended elite secondary schools for they, too, are prone to perpetuate the myth that they pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps (see, for example, Zweigenhaft, 2004). However, the work by Yaqub (2002) and Laneri (2010) could be developed further by studying the full range of elite high schools represented at one or two elite universities, such as Harvard and Stanford (in 2014, according to the U.S. News and World Report, Harvard was #1 and Stanford was #2). It would also be useful to study alumni lists from a few elite prep schools to see where their graduates went to college, and not incidentally, how many of them ended up in the corporate elite, or, more generally, the power elite. But obtaining useful lists, whether from Harvard, Stanford, or prep schools, is not easy. It takes a little bit of snooping and networking, which social scientists seem reluctant to do when it comes to the higher levels of society. In that regard, it is noteworthy that Yaquib and Laneri are both journalists, not social scientists.
In other words, a much more complete picture of the importance of elite educational experiences for corporate directors and CEOs could emerge if we had good data on secondary school attendance. Based on the tendency not to report private school attendance in public sources, the findings we have might only be scratching the surface.
But whether or not we ever have the full story on just how many members of the power elite go to elite schools, we have to keep in mind that elite educational experiences are part of a larger set of processes that lead to social reproduction. Even before many youngsters attend elite prep schools, colleges, and post-graduate programs, they have been raised and socialized by parents who have used distinctive forms of child-rearing and who have served as role models (see, for example, Lareau, 2003; Kusserow, 2012; Lareau and Calarco, 2012; Stephens, Fryberg, and Markus, 2012; Weis, Cippolone, & Jenkinds, 2014). Moreover, as Baltzell (1958, 1964), Domhoff (1967, 1970), and Kanter (1977) argued long ago, and Rivera (2015) persuasively demonstrated quite recently, when it comes to getting in, and moving up, the corporate hierarchy, elite educational credentials are only part of what goes on as the doors open for some, and remain closed to others.
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