Big Ten tops all conferences in producing CFOs


The Big Ten is America’s power conference when it comes to producing chief financial officers, according to a recent report from Crist|Kolder Associates.

The report found that 69 of the CFOs at Fortune 500 and S&P 500 companies received undergraduate degrees from the Big Ten, the most of any conference.

The Big East was second with 53, followed by foreign schools (47) and the Pacific 12 (44). The ACC, with 37, rounded out the top 5.

The study examined the educational backgrounds of 602 sitting CFOs as of Aug. 1, 2013.
College sports enthusiasts have long argued about which conference has the best collection of football or basketball programs. Crist|Kolder, an executive search firm, piggybacked on that idea in its Volatility Report, a twice-a-year study that measures the turnover of C-suite executives in the country’s largest companies. The conference affiliation section is just a small part of the overall report. 

Josh Crist, a managing director at Crist|Kolder, attributed the Big Ten’s No. 1 ranking to the fact that the conference has a lot of large, public schools, including two that are well known for their strong accounting programs. The University of Illinois produced 15 of the CFOs in the study—the most of any school—while Indiana University was second with 14 CFO alumni.

“Our curriculum is different from other schools in some fairly material ways,” says Professor Jon S. Davis, CPA, the department head of accounting at Illinois, in explaining the school’s ranking. “It focuses more on business judgment and the kinds of things people in the C-suite would need to know in their careers as opposed to focusing purely on technical accounting topics.”

The Big East also is traditionally a strong CFO producer—in part due to its schools’ close proximity to major Northeastern cities, such as New York City and Boston, which are home to many large public companies. Crist notes that those companies often find it cheaper to recruit accounting talent from Big East schools than from the nearby Ivy League.

The Big East also got a boost from geographic outlier Notre Dame, which produced 11 of the CFOs, tied for fourth highest in the country. But the Big East’s days as a CFO powerhouse will soon be over thanks to the conference realignment that has been sweeping college sports. The conference is losing several notable members, including Notre Dame, which is headed to the ACC. While the Fighting Irish will retain their independent status in football, the study considers a school’s home conference to be the one in which the majority of its sports are played.

Other notable CFO-producing schools include the University of Texas at Austin, which was second in the country with 13, and Stanford University, which was tied for fourth with 11. Oxford University in England stood out as one of the largest producers of Fortune 500 and S&P 500 CFOs among foreign schools.

The report also examined the undergraduate educational backgrounds of Fortune 500 and S&P 500 CEOs. The conference with the No. 1 rank there was not surprising to anyone familiar with the business of business education. “If you look at the Ivy League—CEO heaven,” says Crist. The Ivy League produced 70 CEOs, followed by the Big Ten with 67 and foreign schools with 65. Harvard was tops among individual schools, with 16 CEOs. Stanford was just one behind, with 15 chief executives, followed by Texas (14), Cornell University (13), and Notre Dame (12).

Chris Baysden ( ) is a JofA senior editor.

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