CNBC25: Rebels, Icons and Leaders

What do young leaders study? It may surprise you

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CNBC's list of young leaders likely to change the world in the next quarter century is an eclectic one, including both Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and fashion entrepreneur Tory Burch.

For proof, look no further than their college degrees. These visionary leaders were most likely to major in liberal arts or social sciences, and close to 20 percent of them either dropped out of college or never earned a college degree.

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True, the list includes plenty of business, economics, engineering and computer science majors. Together, they make up slightly more than half the list. But more than 30 of the CNBC NEXT List members earned degrees in fields like environmental studies, English literature and even mythology (Bre Pettis of MakerBot).

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Not only that, NEXT listers were even more likely to major in liberal arts or social science fields than college students overall. Some 27 percent of the NEXT list members had degrees in those fields, compared with less than 20 percent for all students, according to Department of Education data.

It's quite possible to develop as a leader regardless of academic concentration, said Jeff Klein, executive director of the Wharton Leadership Program.

"The Wharton approach to leadership development highlights the importance of learning from experience—success and failure—for our students and executives. The combination of these `stretch experiences' supported by important relationships (trusted colleagues, coaches and mentors) and evidence-based knowledge are the pillars upon which anyone can develop the capacity to lead and make a positive difference in the world," he said.

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Steve Dunwell | Age Fotostock | Getty Images

Members of the NEXT list also had a propensity to drop out of college, or to simply never earn a college degree. That seems improbable—until you consider that 63 of Forbes' 2012 list of the top 400 billionaires, just more than 15 percent, never finished college either.

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Today there are even scholarships for people who want to drop out of college to pursue their passion, like the Thiel Fellowship.

That doesn't mean dropping out of college is a route to riches for most people, though. Quite the contrary: In 2013, workers aged 25 to 32 with bachelor's degrees or more had median salaries of $45,500 measured in 2012 dollars, compared with $28,000 for high school graduates, according to the Pew Research Center.

For college students just starting out, the message is clear. Unless you are a singular business prodigy, go to college—but if British literature is your passion, go ahead and major in it. If you become a true leader, you'll have company.