Does Graduate School Matter? America’s 100 Wealthiest: 44 Percent Have Graduate Degrees

By William A. Foster, IV

Our most widely known scholars have been trained in universities outside of the South. – Dr. Carter G. Woodson


Probability is defined as how likely something is to happen. Most events can not be predicted with absolute certainty. The best we can do is to say how likely something is to happen using the theory of probability. We all know that education is important, but how much education is needed has always been up for debate. Let us be clear, all education is not created equal. Howard University  and the University of Phoenix are in different pantheons of education despite both offering undergraduate and graduate degrees. A large portion of college, be it undergraduate or graduate is about the network you are plugging into and the proverbial “ownership” that institution serves. For instance, Notre Dame clearly is “owned” by the Catholic community. Its social, economic, and political DNA all flows through its Catholic roots and papal connection from its founding and is rooted in all that it does today. It goes without saying that a Catholic at Notre Dame will be afforded a higher probability of certain opportunities and access to its network’s power, something that non-Catholics attending Notre Dame would not be afforded. This institutional ownership can be based on religion, ancestry, gender, etc. All of these things must be factored in and complicit when analyzing, but that does not change the overarching reality that just an undergraduate degree is enough information intake anymore to break through into the pantheons of America’s wealthiest.

Out of the 100 wealthiest Americans 44 percent have graduate degrees. The normal assumption is of course they all have MBAs, which is well represented certainly, but by no means was the MBA the dominant degree that even I assumed it would be. Overall, 74 percent of the wealthiest 100 have at least a bachelor’s degree, 13 percent attended some college and dropped out, and the rest some mixture of high school or unknown education. You could argue that the country does not just say education matters, it practices it and rewards it. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that over a 35 year span those with master’s, doctoral, and professional degrees will earn $100 000, $215 000, and $240 000 more than those with just a bachelors, respectively. That is not even taking into account the potential of those additional earnings being transformed into investments, which is often the catalyst for becoming among America’s wealthiest. Unless you are coming into a family inheritance, then you will need all the extra capital you can get to increase your probability of economic success. Again, all education is not created equal and whom you are being educated by matters, but to see that education is prevalent among the country’s economic elite does speak volumes to community values. The breakdown of the graduate degrees was also surprising. Yes, MBAs led the way, but as aforementioned the gap was not as large as I assumed it would be. MBAs constituted 43 percent of graduate degrees, MA/MS were next with 32 percent, law degrees or JDs were third with almost 23 percent, and PhD/MDs comprised almost 16 percent. With this type of information it further reinforces HBCUs need to build their graduate school ecosystem and network from within.

HBCUs best and brightest undergraduates continue to be cherry picked by HWCU/PWIs in an institutional brain drain of the HBCU ecosystem. This impact allows for a justification of a disproportionate amount of research funding to be steered away from HBCUs. We also know that graduate schools are responsible for the likes of creating companies such as FedEx and Google. A report by the Kauffman Foundation on MIT’s alumni founded companies alone shows the school’s alumni have created economic impact equivalent to the eleventh largest country on Earth and employs almost 2 million people. If HBCUs were to even match half of that employment number it would drop African America’s unemployment rate to under 6 percent and create jobs for every HBCU graduate. At current, the gap between HWCU and HBCU research spending is startling to say the least with the top 20 HWCU research institutions spending $40 to every $1 in research that the top 20 HBCU research institutions spend. As noted in our article on public HBCU athletics, HBCUs are spending $0.80 on athletics for every $1.00 of research, while our counterparts are spending $0.14 on athletics for every $1.00 of research. If graduate schools matter and research matters in the climb up the economic ladder in America (and arguably around the world), then HBCUs and their alumni have to stop treating their graduate schools like places for their undergraduate alumni to holdover while they figure out life or wait to get a job offer after graduation.

There are 43 HBCU (including Chicago State University and Charles Drew University) with graduate programs, five HBCU law schools, and four HBCU medical schools. Currently, the only full service HBCU, those with graduate programs, law school, and medical school, is Howard University. No public HBCUs have a medical school which means HBCUs are missing out on public funds directed toward medical research. Again, research is typically the forerunner to products being developed and companies being founded. Having access to public funds is often vital to that development. Another way to look at it is that African Americans are paying into the tax base for medical research, but not able to extract any of it through our public institutions. It is not only STEM though that we must be concerned with. The social sciences and humanities are areas where there is a vital opportunity to present to the world an African Diaspora point of view through research. Yet, when it comes to something as simple as African Studies we are anorexic in our presence in the field. The Root a few  years ago pointed out, “only Howard and Clark Atlanta universities offer master’s programs. Howard is also the only HBCU to offer a doctoral program in African studies, which is offered by eight traditionally white institutions.” How will African American businesses be able to do business in Africa if we do not have a cultural understanding of the diversity within our own Diaspora? One would imagine that someone with graduate level studies could form a consulting company that sells services that help businesses transition products and services for optimal success on the continent. The continent by the way with the fastest growing economies in the world.

The MBA on the other hand is an animal upon itself. One in which of late a number of HBCUs have decided to offer. The MBA long served as a tool of training tomorrow’s CEO’s and upper level management. It usually required a minimum of five years working experience, the GMAT, and sacrificing your social life for two years due to the intensity and demand of the nation’s best programs. I once had a classmate try to work 15 hours per week as a waiter while we were in business school and it almost killed him. Truly great MBA programs will tell you that between good grades, social life, and sleep you are only going to achieve two during your two years. It is one of those degrees, as noted by the percentage aforementioned, that if you are going to offer you better offer it right. Unfortunately, most HBCUs are offering an MBA program that is barely a notch above the University of Phoenix’s MBA program. It is questionable whether it is worth the paper it is printed on and does little more than add tuition revenue to the school’s coffers and debt to the student’s bottom line. They are usually not unique in any kind of way other than accessibility which is really not the point of an MBA. I moved to Boston to do part of mine in a program that required a semester abroad at usually the visiting country’s top MBA program. A traditional MBA that is going to have brand recognition is not going to be part-time. To get the benefits there is sacrifice required not convenience. I say that to say HBCUs that are offering MBAs just to offer them will never be able to recruit the top talented HBCU undergraduates or professionals because they are just one in a pile. Instead, what many should have been doing is offering specialized MBAs in fields like agriculture, computer science, government, philanthropy, or even an MBA for education professionals like Rice University does. Even more like Brandeis University that offers an MBA in Jewish Studies. Why are there no HBCU MBAs that teach HBCU graduates how to run and manage African American owned organizations and businesses? We face unique challenges in starting and building organizations and businesses and yet, HBCUs largely ignore this as an opportunity.

It is clear that in this, the information age, that knowledge matters. Knowledge always has been to some degree, but even more so now – power. Quality knowledge across a great spectrum is vital to developing tomorrow for our communities, institutions, and families. We teach students in undergraduate the basics of that knowledge, but it is in graduate school where they learn the nuances, develop, and hone the skills of putting that knowledge to use. Is graduate a guarantee to riches? Certainly not. Nothing in life ever is. However, what we do see is that if we plan to close the wealth gap both individually and institutionally; it will be done through harnessing more knowledge not less. As the requirements for high skilled jobs and entrepreneurship skyrocket, then we are increasingly getting further and further behind the curve by not innovating within our own graduate schools and ecosystem. Often doing more reactive and symbolic gestures than substantive ones. Of the 1.8 million full-time students enrolled in graduate programs in the United States, 12.1 percent are African American according to the Council on Graduate Schools. Nationally, graduate students comprise 14.3 percent of the combined undergraduate and graduate school population. Conversely, African American graduate students comprise only 6.9 percent of the combined African American undergraduate and graduate school population. Most likely due to many African American undergraduates choosing to go straight to work immediately upon graduation, unable to forgo an additional number of years of earnings despite the aforementioned long-term economic benefits.

America’s wealthiest come from a myriad of different industries. They have all made their wealth in a vast spectrum of different ways. The constant to their stories is graduate level education tilts the odds in their favor to achieve economic independence and wealth for  almost 1 out of 2. In other words, like the motto of the HBCU Endowment Foundation, an organization with a strong emphasis on HBCU graduate school development, – “Sacrifice today, so tomorrow may prosper.”

Editor’s Correction: There are five HBCU medical schools. Tuskegee University has a veterinarian school, which is recognized as a medical school.

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