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The skyrocketing cost of college has rekindled the age-old debate about whether parents should pay the extra $50,000 or more for a so-called elite school. But if return on your money is what you're after, it's hard to argue with a recent study from the research firm Wealth-X, which ranked universities around the world by the number of billionaires and ultra-high-net-worth individuals to whom they have awarded degrees.
Each school, as the representative alumni we've assembled here show, has its own character. But they all have a few traits in common. Nearly all of the top 10 for billionaires are elite, private universities. More importantly, according to David Friedman, president of Wealth-X, is the access they offer. The list, said Friedman, "validates what we all whisper and now we know: It's not just what you know, it's who you know."
Click ahead to see the top 10 universities, and the billionaires who attended:
Number of billionaire alumni: 11
Total wealth: $48 billion
The only non-U.S. institution appearing on the list, at no. 10, the University of Cambridge has for years Cambridge has topped lists of the best universities for international students like Beijing real-estate magnate Zhang Xin.
As a teenager bought herself a ticket to England with her savings from a factory job in Hong Kong. Working part-time in a fish-and-chips shop, she took a master's degree in development economics.Today, her and her husband's fortune of $2.65 bilion makes her the third-richest woman in China.
Number of billionaire alumni: 13
Total wealth: $77 billion
One of five (of eight) Ivy League universities are in the top 10 for billionaire alumns, Yale is perhaps the quintessential academy of the American elite, with three of the last four presidents holding Yale degrees.
But its sheen of ascendency is perhaps more subtle than that, as Stephen Schwarzman, the billionaire CEO of the private equity firm Blackstone Group, noted in a recent interview about why he chose to go to school in New Haven: On seeing a Yale student nattily attired tan chinos, Bass Weejuns, a button-down collar shirt and a corduroy sport coat, he said, "I want to be that kid."
Number of billionaire alumni: 14
Total wealth: $32 billion
Most observers of wealth might have picked UC Berkeley, California's premier public university near Silicon Valley, over a school known primarily for its film majors, like Star Wars director George Lucas. Indeed, ranked by ultra-high-net-worth alums (those worth $30 million or more), Berkeley easily outpaces USC. And USC's billionaires are among the least wealthy on this list, with just more than $2 billion a piece on average. Lucas, with $3.3 billion to his name, isn't even the richest entertainment figure in the state: that's David Geffen, who dropped out of the University of Texas.
Number of billionaire alumni: 14
Total wealth: $35 billion
Like Herbert Fisk Johnson III, 23 percent of the billionaires who have emerged from Cornell inherited their fortunes, rather than made them on their own (or spun an inheritance into greater wealth). "Fisk" is the fifth of his line to head up the cleaning products giant SC Johnson & Son. Not that he couldn't have succeeded on his own: he has two master's degrees, in engineering and physics, as well as a Ph.D. in physics and an MBA, all earned at Cornell University and its graduate school of management, named after his great-great-grandfather, Samuel Curtis Johnson, founder of the company.
Number of billionaire alumni: 15
Total wealth: $114 billion
Despite a strong international component among its faculty and student body, MIT has perhaps the least cosmopoliton reputation of the elite universities.
Heavily male (its billionaires have the lowest female representation of any school on the list, at 2 percent) and mathematics oriented, the school is known for providing quantitative analysts ( "quants") to the hedge-fund industry. Its billionaires have the highest average net worth of any schoo, at more than $7 billion a piece.
Perhaps ironically, its best known billionaire may be the politically active David Koch, who was a basketball star in his time there, and still holds the record for points scored per game.
Number of billionaire alumni: 15
Total wealth: $96 billion
Learning business in the financial capital of the country makes a certain sense, whether you head downtown to Wall Street or find your own path. For Warren Buffett, his time at the business school was a brief interlude away from Omaha. But it was there he studied under Benjamin Graham and David Dodd, co-authors of "Security Analysis," still the definitive book on value investing.
Number of billionaire alumni: 17
Total wealth: $68 billion
To New Yorkers, it's still hard to think of NYU, a hodgepodge of buildings in Greenwich Village, as an elite institution on the level of its uptown Ivy, Columbia. In the late 1970s, NYU was a regional commuter school, home to native sons like John Paulson, who grew up across the East River in a middle-class apartment complex in Queens. A diffident student, Paulson left NYU to travel, returning to take a degree in business before going on to Harvard for his MBA.
Like Paulson, now a hedge-fund king worth, $11 billion, 74 percent of NYU's billionare alumni are self made, the same percentage as Harvard.
Number of billionaire alumni: 27
Total wealth: $76 billion
Officially, Google co-founder Sergey Brin is on leave from his Ph.D. studies at Stanford, a status that only makes him the more representative of the modern tech billionaire. Neither Bill Gates nor Mark Zuckerberg finished their appointed course of study (at Harvard) before seeing a more direct and lucrative path. Like Brin, 71 percent of Stanford billionaires are self-made, and most walked out of Stanford's Silicon Valley campus to find riches outside its gates.
Number of billionaire alumni: 28
Total wealth: $112 billion
Breeding billionaires not only helps a school's profile, it boosts the bottom line. New York businessman Ronald Perelman got his MBA from Penn's Wharton School and has never forgotten it. His most recent gift to the university, announced this month, was a $25 million donation to fund the Ronald O. Perelman Center for Political Science and Economics in an existing building at the heart of Penn's campus.
Of course, their money also makes it hard to say no. In 2008, Penn faculty and other alumni were grieved to hear that thanks to an earlier Perelman donation, a campus building would be renamed Claudia Cohen Hall, after the billionaire's ex-wife, a former editor of The New York Post Page Six gossip column.
Number of billionaire alumni: 52
Total wealth: $205 billion
Founded by colonists at the edge of a new world, Harvard today stands at the center of a global network of business. For Jorge Lemann, a Brazilian born to Swiss parents, it was a first stepping stone to a job at Credit Suisse, a career in banking and beer brewing back home, and the leadership of a global conglomerate that recently announced a deal to buy H.J. Heinz with Warren Buffett.
Lemann would have a lot to talk about with his former countryman, Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, a Brazilian who passed through Harvard on his way to earning billions in Silicon Valley. Saverin now lives and does business from Singapore. With a reach like that, Harvard's lead in billionaires may go unchallenged for years to come.