The three “Cornellians” were billionaire tech investor and philanthropist Robert F. Smith, Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen and Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert in the U.S., who has become a household name since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Although it may be notable that three graduates from one of America’s top universities has made the Time 100, in some ways it is hardly surprising.
As researchers who specialize in higher education and gifted students, we have analyzed the educational backgrounds of the people who made the Time 100 since the list began in 1999 through 2019. We found that although only about 2% to 5% of all U.S. undergraduates went to elite universities, the alumni of those schools have been dominating the Time 100. Specifically, they have comprised anywhere from about 30% to 50% of the Time 100 from 1999 through 2020.
Since their presence on the list is so disproportionate, our findings raise questions about whether the pathway to societal influence runs through elite schools more often than it does all others. Or is there just something special about the people who get into elite schools that makes them more likely to rise to prominent positions in society? And does it really matter whether you attend an elite school or not?
To examine these issues, we had to come up with a definition of an elite school ... for this study we used highly selective schools both within the U.S. and outside its borders.
Our definition captured the eight Ivy League schools, plus many of the top national universities and liberal arts colleges that consistently rank high in their average scores on college entrance exams, such as the SAT or ACT.
Beyond whether Time 100 honorees went to elite schools or not, we thought it was worthwhile to look at their individual backgrounds ... some people on the list grew up wealthy and went to an elite school, and some did not.
For instance, Hewlettt-Packard CEO Meg Whitman, who attended both Princeton and Harvard universities, grew up well-to-do and went to an elite school.
Then there are some who grew up poor and made it into elite schools, such as Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who attended both Princeton and Yale universities.
In addition, some Time 100 honorees grew up relatively poor and did not go to elite schools such as billionaires Howard Schultz (Northern Michigan University) – perhaps best known for his tenure as CEO of Starbucks – and Oprah Winfrey (Tennessee State University).
Some grew up poor and didn’t go to college at all, such as the actor and director Tyler Perry.
Each of these people has a story about the path they took to achieve their accomplishments – stories that can help shine the light on what are the typical paths to success in modern society.
In 2020, the percentage of Time 100 honorees who went to elite schools dropped to about 29%, the lowest percentage to date. In 2016 this percentage stood at 34%, and in 2018 it was 33%. One commonality across the three years with the lowest percentage of elite school graduates – 2016, 2018 and 2020 – is that the “scientists/thinkers” category was not included in the respective lists by the editors, and that category typically has the highest percentage of graduates from elite schools.
In 2019, women and men had similar proportions of elite school attendance. However, the proportion of men on the 2020 list with elite school attendance – about 41% – was much higher than for women – about 19%.
It also pays to look at the category of accomplishment. Our 2019 analysis shows that higher proportions of scientists/thinkers – anywhere from about 60% to 80% – went to elite schools. The same is true for leaders/revolutionaries – about 40% to 70% went to elite schools. It also holds for builders/titans – about 30% to 70% went to elite schools.
On the other hand, fewer heroes/icons – about 1% to 40% – and artists/entertainers – from 0% to 30% – went to elite schools. This pattern also held for the 2020 Time 100 list.