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Success beyond STEM: an analysis of educational background of the Fortune 50 CEOs

James Welch (Sykes College of Business, University of Tampa, Tampa, Florida, USA)

Higher Education, Skills and Work-Based Learning

ISSN: 2042-3896

Article publication date: 18 August 2020

Issue publication date: 27 April 2021




The purpose of this article is examine some of the most successful contemporary global business leaders in relation to undergraduate institution and undergraduate major in order to examine the value and return of higher education programs for global business leadership. This is an important topic in the modern global context, as there continues to be an increasing global push toward deemphasizing and defunding liberal arts education in favor of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields for college and university students around the globe.


The educational backgrounds of the 2019 Fortune 50 CEOs were researched in relation to undergraduate institutions attended and undergraduate majors. The study also included an examination of graduate education, if applicable. Using available biographical information regarding the CEOs educational backgrounds, these business leaders were compared relative to the educational data.


An examination of the undergraduate educational backgrounds of the 2019 Fortune 50 CEOs revealed an exact split between 18 STEM majors, 18 liberal arts majors and 18 business majors, with 1 CEO who began university studies but did not graduate. Upon examination, it is also apparent that some majors were more directly related to a CEO's industry, while other majors ended up having little relation to the CEO's chosen career path.

Practical implications

The results of this study contribute to the very important discussion concerning the long-term value of a college education. At both micro and macro levels, stakeholders are constantly questioning the ultimate return on investment of a college education, and examination of the 2019 Fortune 50 CEOs indicates that the choice of college major is only one ingredient in the overall recipe for professional success. For these business leaders, there were a wide variety of educational paths, in terms of college academic preparations, that eventually led to the very pinnacle of professional and leadership attainment.


This study demonstrates that a particular undergraduate field of study is not going to make or break a career, and the examination of these Fortune 50 CEOs indicates that one's ultimate career achievement is not simply relegated to the specific field of undergraduate major.



Welch, J. (2021), "Success beyond STEM: an analysis of educational background of the Fortune 50 CEOs", Higher Education, Skills and Work-Based Learning, Vol. 11 No. 2, pp. 557-575.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2020, Emerald Publishing Limited

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