Two paths to billions: Go to Yale, or drop out of college

Forbes is the leader in gawking at the richest among us. Its latest list of billionaires shows that they took a $300 billion hit in 2008 -- down 19 percent, to $1.27 trillion. More interesting than that is Forbes's analysis of some of the common traits of the members of their list. When it comes to education, billionaires are bi-polar -- either go to the best of the best or drop out.

If you want to make billions, one path appears to be to join Yale's Skull and Bones -- a secret society that includes a few politicians like John Kerry and the Bushes among its members. Forbes notes that hedge fund investor Edward Lampert, Blackstone (BX) co-founder Stephen Schwarzman, and FedEx (FDX) founder Frederick Smith are among the Skull and Bones billionaires.

And for those billionaires who like finance, there's no better post-graduate school than Goldman Sachs Group (GS). Its billionaire alumni include 11 current and recent billionaire financiers such as Lampert (who wins twice due to his Skull and Bones membership), David Tepper, Daniel Och and Leon Cooperman.

Of course, I find it interesting that among the billionaires there are many college dropouts. Bill Gates of Microsoft (MSFT), Apple's (AAPL) Steve Jobs, Michael Dell of Dell (DELL), Larry Ellison of Oracle (ORCL) and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg. Since Gates and Zuckerberg both dropped out of Harvard, they also get the best of both worlds.

One other thing I find interesting about this year's rich list is what happened to the top three. Gates and Warren Buffett both lost billions while Ellison held steady at $27 billion in 2008. Gates watched his net worth tumble $7 billion, falling to a mere $50 billion, while Buffett ended up with $40 billion, suffering a $10 billion loss.

I think Ellison's wealth held up because Oracle has adapted best to the real world of slow growth. Instead of pouring money into new businesses that can't keep up, like Microsoft, or betting big on derivatives, like Buffett, Ellison has been steadily acquiring smaller fish in his industry and cutting costs.

It will be interesting to see whether that strategy keeps working when the rich list comes out next year. Meanwhile, Forbes has kind of missed the boat when it comes to identifying the traits that make for such successful capitalists -- the bottom line is that they can come from any academic background.

What makes them so successful eludes me.

Peter Cohan is a management consultant, Babson professor and author of eight books including, You Can't Order Change. Follow him on Twitter. He has no financial interest in the securities mentioned.

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