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Billionaire U: Why Harvard Mints Mega-Rich Alums

Wednesday, 20 Feb 2013 | 11:18 AM ET
Harvard University skyline.
John Coletti | Photodisc | Getty Images
Harvard University skyline.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has its hedge-fund quants, the University of Southern California has its movie moguls. But if you really want your child to be a billionaire, you might want to send them to Harvard.

Harvard has graduated some 52 billionaires, with a collective fortune of $205 billion, to lead Wealth-X's global list of universities ranked by alumni worth $1 billion or more. That's nearly twice as many as the No. 2 school, the University of Pennsylvania, which has 28 billionaire alumni worth a collective $112 billion.

And these numbers don't include either Microsoft's Bill Gates or Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg both of whom attended Harvard but didn't stay to get their degree. Together they are worth some $45 billion.

(Read More: Cities That Mint Millionaires the Fastest)

Before dismissing Harvard is a domain of rich kids who mostly inherit their wealth, consider that the school also claimed the highest percentage of self-made billionaires in the study. Seventy-four percent of the school's billionaire alumni "built that," Wealth-X found.

"It shows the power of networks," said David Friedman, president of Wealth-X. "Harvard has this entrenched, powerful network that extends across so many sectors and is incredibly pro-active about connecting its alumni. You get a great education, but you also get access."

Harvard's success, said Friedman, "validates what we all whisper and now we know: It's not just what you know, it's who you know."

Other schools can boast about their networks, too, particularly those with lines into technology and other leading fields for growing wealth.

As the chart below shows, Stanford University, in the heart of Silicon Valley, has 27 billionaires to its credit, ranking No. 3. M.I.T., whose alumni beat Harvard's for highest average net worth, at $257 million, has sprinkled its number-crunching analysts throughout Wall Street and hedge funds. The University of Cambridge, the only school outside the United States to make the top 10, is a high-tech leader in the U.K.

Universities Ranked By Billionaire Alumni

Billionaire Rank University Billionaire Alumni Population Total Wealth of Billionaire Alumni ( $US billion)
1 Harvard University 52 205
2 University of Pennsylvania 28 112
3 Stanford University 27 76
4 New York University 17 68
5 Columbia University 15 96
6 Massachusetts Institute of Technology 15 114
7 Cornell University 14 35
8 University of Southern California 14 32
9 Yale University 13 77
10 University of Cambridge 11 48
Source: Wealth-X

And in the broader category of ultra-high-net-worth individuals, which Wealth-X defines as those worth $30 million or more, "there are smaller clusters of successful graduates who have drawn in other alumni," Friedman noted. The University of Virginia, for instance, has many fewer billionaires, but outdid Harvard for the highest percentage of self-made wealthy, at 79 percent.

Monash University, in Melbourne, Australia, is a launching pad for women. Seventeen percent of their ultra-high-net-worth graduates are women. Among top American universities, Northwestern and Brown are conducive to female wealth with 15 percent and 14 percent.

(Read More: Millionaires Say They Are Better Off Than in 2007)

But Harvard led in every other category in the Wealth-X rankings. Its ultra-high-net-worth graduates' sheer numbers – totaling close to 3,000 – and their outsized total net worth of $622 billion is enough to make parents whose children won't be going feel left out.

Some quick math, Friedman pointed out, provides a little balm for those suffering from elite education envy. In all, the universities mentioned in Wealth-X's report have helped create 14,355 ultra-high-net-worth individuals out of a total global population of more than 186,000, or about 7 percent. "That leaves 93 percent of the world's super-rich," Friedman said, "who did just fine without attending a top ranked school."

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  • A reporter and editor, Robert Frank is a leading authority on the American wealthy for CNBC.