Aspiring finance chiefs lacking Ivy League degrees can take some comfort in a recent study which found that Big Ten schools educated more sitting CFOs than any other U.S. sports conference, according to the executive search firm Crist|Kolder Associates’ Volatility Report.
Of the 657 current finance chiefs with known undergraduate educational backgrounds in Fortune 500 and S&P 500 companies this year, the biggest share of CFOs (14%) came from international institutions, while 10% and 9%, respectively, came from Big Ten and Atlantic Coast Conference institutions, and nearly 8% hailed from the Ivies, according to the latest issue of the study which reviewed data from public filings and other sources through Aug. 15.
When it came to the CEO seat, the Ivy League — comprised of eight institutions that are among the country’s most prestigious and selective universities such as Harvard, Yale and Princeton universities — rose to the top in the U.S. Of the 662 sitting CEOs in the Fortune 500 and S&P 500 this year with known educational backgrounds, the biggest chunk (16%) hailed from international schools, while the Ivy League (10%) educated more chief executives than any other domestic sports conference, followed by Big Ten schools (9%).
The Big Ten’s strong showing in the CFO seat didn’t come as a major surprise to experts in corporate finance. The conference — composed of 14 mostly public universities including Pennsylvania State University, Michigan State and Ohio State University — often have more robust accounting programs than Ivy League and some other private schools, they said.
“Some of the best accounting programs in the country are from public universities. And that is still the most common major for CFOs to have studied in school, even if it is changing,” said Jack McCullough, founder and president of the CFO Leadership Council.
“While Ivy league schools absolutely deserve their reputations, not many students go there for accounting,” he said. “The most popular majors are economics, computer science and social sciences. Great fields of study, but not an obvious starting point for a future CFO.”
The study found that the top five public schools that produced sitting CFOs are: (1) University of Virginia with 11; (2) Pennsylvania State University with 10; (3) University of Texas at Austin with 9; (4) Indiana University with 8; and (5) University of Connecticut with 8. The top five private schools that graduated sitting CFOs are: (1) University of Pennsylvania with 15; (2) University of Notre Dame with 12; (3) Duke University with 12; (4) Stanford University with 10; and (5) Harvard University with 8.
The wide-ranging Crist-Kolder study was originally released late last month, preceding some of the drama that arose this week as U.S. News & World Report published its closely scrutinized and often criticized rankings of undergraduate colleges.
The publication shook up its methodology, and some schools’ places in the rankings this year, as it put greater emphasis on social mobility by adding such metrics as graduation rates of students with federal Pell Grants, which target low- and moderate-income populations, Industry Dive sister publication Higher Ed Dive reported.
The better CFO showing of the Big Ten schools may in part reflect the more egalitarian nature of the job in which skills and acumen play a big role. “CFOs are expected to have specific financial and accounting skills, which can be objectively evaluated through experience and qualifications,” said Nick Araco Jr., founder of The CFO Alliance, a network of more than 9,000 CFOs and financial executives. “Therefore the focus for CFO selection is often on their professional expertise rather than their alma mater.”
Still, the fact that overall a slim majority of both CEOs (57%) and CFOs (55%) hailed from public institutions rather than private colleges or universities was a surprise to some.
“I'm actually happy to see that,” said Jack Castonguay, an assistant professor in accounting at Hofstra University in New York, noting that he was somewhat surprised to hear that the public school graduates hold so many CEO and CFO spots. “It shows public universities are doing the work and getting people to the top without the name!”