Those of us with a little bit of grey hair in Marcellus have realised over the past decade that in the booming cities of Asia, elite education is not worth the paper it is written on. Whilst we have written about this in our books (see Chapter 3 of ‘Unfiltered: the CEO & the Coach’), we were intrigued to see that in the same week stories appearing in the Indian and American media about the fading value of elite education.

In India, the venerable Shekhar Gupta of The Print highlighted the democratisation of success that has taken place over the past 20 years when he wrote: “India’s caravan is moving on like a juggernaut pulled by tens of millions of supremely talented Indians that our handful of old elite institutions are too small to have produced….

In 2003, in a National Interest piece headlined ‘The HMT Advantage’, I had noted the rise and rise of a new kind of elite in India, those coming in from Hindi Medium Type (therefore HMT) institutions. That piece was sparked by the death of astronaut Kalpana Chawla who, we discovered, rose from modest schooling from nondescript Karnal in Haryana to become a NASA astronaut.

It had noted that already the top leadership of our politics, civil services, armed forces, corporates, judiciary, even the media, was no longer the preserve of the old, establishment elites. That it no longer mattered where you came from, how well your daddy had done, what clubs and networks your family was linked to. These had stopped mattering even 20 years ago when that piece was written….”

Shekhar says that the roots of change in modern India can be traced back to the economic reforms of 1991 and the demand for talent that the free market created: “This transformation and expansion can primarily be traced to 1991, the first phase of the economic reforms.

As long as the economy was small and growing slowly, the few privileged institutions sufficed to produce the talent India needed, from corporate boardrooms to the civil services and the judiciary. Now, a rapidly growing economy needed many more talented people and a much larger catchment area. St. Stephen’s/Doon/Mayo/St. Columba’s/St. Xavier’s/La Martinière…are still great institutions — they may be India’s finest even now — but they are just too few to meet India’s need for talent.

That’s why a Tata Administrative Services equivalent today needs to go way beyond these institutions, family networks and checking the names of the candidates’ fathers. The desperate, slog 24×7 push of middle, lower middle and poor India, meanwhile, has made it much, much more competitive to crack the UPSC examinations. Track the lists of toppers and rank-holders published by IAS academies when you open our full front pages now, and check if there are any from these old institutions. It is just too hard to compete, and even in the interview process, there is no premium on pedigree.”

Meanwhile in America, contrary to what you & might think given the obsession Indians have with elite education, elite education seems to have also become devalued. Rachel Shin says in Fortune: “Since 1999, David Kang has pursued a peculiar hobby. That year, after Fortune released its annual Fortune 500 issue, Kang began to wonder about where chief executives of companies on the list had attended college. To keep track, the college professor did some research and manually entered their alma maters into a spreadsheet. After completing the task, Kang, then a professor at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, was shocked by what the data revealed.

“The results were stunning,” he told Fortune. “Like everyone else, I thought Ivy Leagues would dominate. But the largest place they had gone to was no college at all.”

Of the 500 CEOs on the list, seven or eight had no undergraduate degree, more than the combined degrees from any other college in the pool, according to Kang… the numbers told all: A fancy degree isn’t required for business success, and top-tier corporate executives usually don’t have elite educations.

Kang continued to track Fortune 500 CEO education numbers over the following two decades, and said there was little change through the years from the initial findings. The consistent pattern for 20 years has been top leaders attending a diversity of colleges, he said.

“It’s an extraordinary testament to the vitality of this country, the incredible range of universities that these people went to,” Kang said….

Here’s what the 2023 Fortune 500 reveals about CEO colleges…Of the 2023 Fortune 100 CEOs, only 11.8% attended an Ivy as undergrads, and only 9.8% hold an Ivy League MBA.”

In the world’s two largest democracies people skills, business skills and hard work matter more than how you speak English and a fancy degree.

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Note: the above material is neither investment research, nor financial advice. Marcellus does not seek payment for or business from this publication in any shape or form. Marcellus Investment Managers is regulated by the Securities and Exchange Board of India as a provider of Portfolio Management Services. Marcellus Investment Managers is also regulated in the United States as an Investment Advisor.

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