How TIME and Statista Determined the Best Colleges and Companies for Future Leaders
A degree from an elite university doesn’t guarantee success. But in U.S. society, success is a good indicator you went to an elite university.
TIME and Statista analyzed the resumés of 2,000 top leaders in the U.S.—politicians, CEOs, union leaders, Nobel winners, and more across sectors—to assemble a list of the universities and colleges where they received their degrees. The list, which is weighted for school size, is led by so-called Ivy Plus schools, with Harvard University dominating the field. Many top schools training future leaders also have notable business and law programs, or are large research universities.
What distinguishes these schools, experts say, is not necessarily that they teach students to be better leaders, but that alums receive more opportunities, and many companies have a vested interest in hiring them. Whatever a student may have learned at school, an elite diploma signals at least two things to prospective employers: survival of a difficult admissions process, and a high likelihood of intelligence. Elite students aren’t the only bright young people in the world, but elite degrees offer a shortcut for finding talent, and make people stand out when they’re being evaluated by people who don’t know them, like in a job interview, says David Deming, a professor of political economy at Harvard Kennedy School.
“I’m sure [hiring managers] could find more than a couple of good students at Big State Universities. But they can also find 30 of them at Harvard,” he says. “I think that people who went to Harvard or schools like it are much more likely to be given a chance.”
Institutions that train many eventual leaders, including elite law firms and academia, are especially likely to winnow applicants based on their resumes. Lauren Rivera, a professor of management and organizations at Northwestern Kellogg, notes that top consulting firms often choose who they interview based on alma mater, and even have quotas for individual schools. Universities themselves are far more likely to hire staff who attended elite schools. According to one 2022 study published in Nature, 80% of domestically trained U.S. faculty were trained in just 20% of universities, especially UC Berkeley, Harvard, University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Stanford, all of which rank in the top 30 of TIME’s list.
Experts say the rapid rise of elite students in U.S. society isn’t even solely a matter of their choices. Students at elite schools are aggressively recruited on campus early in their college careers by companies that host flashy events to “hoover up all the students interested in working for them,” says Amy Binder, professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University, a process that she calls a “career funnel.” This leads many elite students to choose careers right out of college in finance, tech, or consulting—top careers for gaining societal leadership positions. A poll by the Harvard Crimson found that over half of the students entering the workforce from the class of 2023 planned to work in those fields after graduation.
Rivera calls these firms a “golden doorstep.” “These firms market themselves as incubators for high-achieving people,” she says. Students arrive on campus with diverse dreams, but the career funnel convinces high achievers that these jobs are the next step for people like them, says Ryan Cieslikowski, a recent Stanford University graduate and an organizer for Class Action, a grassroots organization working to redirect students from career funnels to social impact work. “Once you get into these schools, it’s the next status competition,” says Cieslikowski.
As the list makes clear, however, the Ivy League isn’t the only route to power. While those schools dominate fields like law, the media, and academia, production fields like engineering, agriculture, and aerospace recruit from schools that are more likely to offer technical skills like engineering, says Steven Brint, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Riverside. The University of Michigan, for instance, is a well-known career pathway to leadership in Detroit’s auto industry, while the University of Texas and Texas A&M—which pop up at 14 and 23 in the ranking—are well known for producing oil and gas leaders. Many of these schools are also geographically closer to the places these companies operate.
“I think that those are probably not the industries that the kids going to elite private institutions are thinking about,” says Brint. “I just don’t think they’re in the same cultural frame.”
If leaders’ resumés are any indicator, the following colleges and universities may be the clearest launching point to leadership. —Tara Law
Correction, Nov. 29
The original version of this article misstated Amy Binder’s professional affiliation. She is now at Johns Hopkins University, not the University of California San Diego.