Is going to college worth it?

College is expensive. Students are graduating with massive debts that take the rest of their lives to pay off. Is it worth it? Bill Gates and Steve Jobs never graduated from college, so perhaps a college degree isn’t even necessary. But are Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckenberg, and Joi Ito rarities in this world, or is this a more general trend?

Let’s analyze Wikipedia for some insight to this crucial question. To help with this task, I’ve created a tool that examines 100,000 biographies of notable individuals born between 1930-1980. This article summarizes my findings.

I’ve divided the results into 5 categories of notable individuals:

  1. Entertainers/Artists (famous singers, writers, etc.)
  2. Athletes, e.g. NBA and NFL professional athletes
  3. Politicians e.g. senators, presidents, protestors
  4. Business people e.g. Warren Buffet, Steve Jobs
  5. Academic nerds e.g. engineers, computer programmers, etc.

Note: A person in Wikipedia can be in more than one category. On his Wikipedia page, Bill Gates is categorized as being both an “American computer programmer” and as “Businesspeople from Seattle.”

College Education by Occupation

59% of the Americans in Wikipedia have no college information on their Wikipedia biography.
That’s surprisingly large.

Is it because Wikipedia simply lacks biographical entries on college education? Probably not. One would expect that almost all notable academics would have a college degree. 79% of the biographies of academics have higher education in their biographies – so perhaps the remaining 21% have incomplete biographical records. Assuming this is a valid proxy for under-reporting higher education, one might guess that, as a lower bound, 59% – 21% = 38% of Wikipedians don’t have a college education.

Furthermore, it stands to reason that if a college education was relevant to a Wikipedian’s achievements, the editorial community would include it in the biographical record. Therefore, even if these results are biased by an under-reporting of college information, it is still a valid indicator of the relative importance of college education to an individual’s notability.

Finally, the relative percentage of individuals with college education is consistent with expectations for the five occupations:

  • Athletes and entertainers/artists don’t require a college education to be successful (70% of the athletes and 60% of entertainers/artists don’t have college educations).
  • About half of business people went to college, but half did not.

College Rates over Time

Given the social pressure to go to college over the last few decades, one would expect that the fraction of people in Wikipedia with a college education would likewise rise over the same time preiod.

Instead, we find that education rates for people in Wikipedia have remained constant over time, despite a general trend in society toward higher education.

The dashed upward-trending line in the graph above shows how the general population is being convinced to go to college; the flat or downward-trending lines for education rates in Wikipedia show that college education has had little to no bearing on one’s accomplishments. In fact, in some disciplines it seems going to college hampers one’s ability to achieve success.

Business people show a small but significant decline in education over time (p = 0.003). Interestingly, the decline in education for businesspeople starts for those born in the 1960’s. This would correspond to being educated in the mid-1980’s which coincides with a recession where college tuition may have been impractical. It also coincides with the development of the World Wide Web which could have created other opportunities.

Entertainers can become successful at a young age without needing further education.
Just look at the Disney child actors that transition into adult roles.

Successful athletes have been showing increased college education rates over the years. This is probably a result of social pressure on college athletics programs to educate their athletes, in addition to using them to fill stadiums and power a money making machine. However, attendance may not mean graduation with a Bachelor’s degree because some athletes choose to leave college and become a professional athlete before graduation. Furthermore, athletes have been given passing grades in classes they never attended, so the ‘education’ aspect of college may be missing.

So is going to college worth it?

If you already know what you want to be – and you’ve proven you have a knack for it – then you may be better off to keep on doing what you’re doing, and skipping the college debt. Just ask the child actors, professional athletes, or all the young entrepreneurs running successful businesses without college degrees.


Mining Wikipedia paper at ICWSM 2012

Britney Spears and Kobe Bryant at VMA Yay! My paper entitled “What Britney Spears and Kobe Bryant Have in Common: Mining Wikipedia for Characteristics of Notable Individuals” was accepted at ICWSM 2012

The pdf can be downloaded here:
Mining Wikipedia For Characteristics of Notable Individuals.pdf

So what do Britney and Kobe have in common? They’re both successful, and my research shows that having a rare name increases the chance of success.

Wait — you say, Britney is a common name! Not so — when Britney was born in 1981, her name was far down the list of popular names — #758 as a matter of fact. So in her age group, her name was quite rare, and that really distinguished her from other musicians. I remember listening to those albums back then, people always said “Christina Aguilera”, but when you said “Britney”, everyone knew you were talking about the one-and-only Ms. Spears. Only later, when she gained immense popularity, did her name become common as parents started naming their daughters “Britney” (the name Britney rose to rank #137 in 2000).

When Britney was becoming a star, her uncommon name helped her. This is not surprising for entertainers, but according to my research, this observation holds for athletes and successful people in general.
And if you don’t have an uncommon name, then my research shows that using a nickname also helps. Think ‘Steve’ Jobs.

I also looked at birth locations. If you’re born in California or New York, you’re 2x more likely to become an entertainer. Not too surprising, because of Hollywood & Broadway. If you’re born in the South, there is increased chance of becoming an athlete.

This isn’t to say that if you have a common name or you weren’t born in these states, there’s no chance you will become famous. It just shows there is an enrichment for these characteristics.

So if you have a common name, try using a nickname!


  • People with rare names more than 2x likely to appear in Wikipedia (2.43x for women; 2.30x for men). [More]
  • People with nicknames are also more likely to be in Wikipedia. Males with nicknames are 2.39x more likely to appear in Wikipedia while for females it’s a 1.32x increase
  • Individuals born in New York and California are ~2x more likely to become entertainers, and those born in the South are ~1.5x more likely to become athletes.[More]

There’s a lot of data in Wikipedia, it can be mined for much much more. This paper describes a couple of features — more associations can be gleaned in the future.



Names and Birth States Found Frequently in Wikipedia

Oprah Winfrey, a successful person with an uncommon name.
Oprah Winfrey, a successful person with an uncommon name.
Bill Gates , Microsoft founder and philanthropist. Born as William Gates, but everyone calls him Bill.

Bill Gates , Microsoft founder and philanthropist.  Real name is William Gates, but commonly called Bill.

What makes a person successful? As parents, we try to make the best choices to help our children become successful and happy.

One of the first things that we decide on when having a baby is the child’s name. Another choice is where to live. Are these relevant in determining a child’s future success?

Wikipedia is full of successful people. I looked at the characteristics of people in Wikipedia to see if they are any different from the average population.

I looked to see if certain names and birthplaces occur in Wikipedia more often than expected . Click here for more details on the analysis.

Analysis on Names in Wikipedia

  • Rare names are enriched in Wikipedia. Names that are less than 1% frequent in the population are 2x more likely to appear in Wikipedia, regardless of gender.
  • If born with a common name, you’re more likely to appear in Wikipedia if you use a nickname rather than the formal name given at birth. For example, Michael appears in Wikipedia 42% less than expected, but its corresponding nickname “Mike” appears 9.7x more frequently than expected in Wikipedia.
  • Visualize names here

    Analysis of Birth States in Wikipedia

  • More entertainers/artists are born in California and New York (~2-fold enrichment)
  • More athletes are born in the Southern states (~1.5-fold enrichment)
  • Visualize all states here

    Download the source code:

    Code for analyzing Wikipedia biographies


    Is it safe to visit this country?

    Have you ever wondered whether it was safe to go to a certain country? Last March, I had a conference in the Middle East and wanted to visit Lebanon as a side trip.   But family was saying no, it’s dangerous while  travel forums were saying it was safe.   I was confused with all the conflicting information and I wanted unbiased facts — how safe was it to visit Lebanon?

    The Foreign & Commonwealth Office in UK has an amazing amount of statistics on their UK citizens that travel. Because they publish the number of annual tourists AND how many died or  were hospitalized,  I could calculate the danger rate by simple division:

    Safety risk = # of hospitalizations & deaths for tourists / total # of tourists

    The safety risk for visiting each country is pretty low overall. For example, according to my numbers, the most dangerous country to visit is Philippines, where about 1 in 1,000 tourists will run into some trouble. However, even though this is a relatively small number, you could ask, how safe is visiting the Philippines compared to say, visiting the United States? By calculating the relative risk, it is ~19 times more dangerous to visit the Philippines than to visit the United States.

    Safety risk includes the number of deaths and hospitalizations. I also looked at the rate of “major incidents” which also includes arrests, assaults, and missing persons as well as deaths and hospitalizations.  Because nothing spoils a vacation like going to jail.

    Surprisingly, while the U.S. is a safe place to go (in the top 10 of countries with a lower chance of dying or being hospitalized as a tourist), a lot of Brits were arrested in the U.S.  You’re 6 times more likely to be arrested in the U.S. than in China!

    RunWellFluorTargetContentSampleBiological Set NameCqCq MeanCq Std. Dev
    VP-xxxx-yyy_001A01HEXInternal ControlUnkn-1Fusion30.8251246930.81717730.193826672
    VP-xxxx-yyy_001A01Texas RedGene AUnkn-1FusionNaN00


    Caveats aka Grain of Salt:

    • Numbers are from April 1, 2009-March 31, 2010 so if there was some out-of-the-ordinary event in the country during that time, it could inflate numbers
    • Tourists = UK citizens travelling  & living abroad.   I don’t know why Thailand is so dangerous — I’ve been there myself and want to go back again, but if UK citizens are retiring there, then it would make sense they would die there (and this increase the danger rate.)



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