2017's top CEOs spurned the traditional MBA

College campus - Columbia
The MBA degree has been on the decline for some time now.

MBA degrees are the traditional route for people going into business, but you wouldn't know it from looking at this year's list of top CEOs. Of the top 100 CEOs ranked by Harvard Business Review (HBR) in its November-December issue, only 29% had an MBA degree.

Furthermore, when ranking the CEOs by country-adjusted total shareholder return (TSR), not one of the top 10 CEOs had an MBA. Instead, they had a mix of engineering and other professional degrees, or in many cases, nothing beyond a bachelor's. Bobby Kotick, CEO of Activision/Blizzard, doesn't even have a B.S., crediting Steve Jobs' influence with convincing him to drop out of college.

In fact, CEOs with engineering degrees slightly edged out ones with MBAs, 32% versus 29%.

Some of that can be attributed to the international scale of this analysis. Among just CEOs in the U.S. and U.K.—where the degree tends to be more popular—MBAs made up a more-respectable 40% of the group.

Still, the MBA degree has been on the decline for some time now. Although business schools in the U.S. still receive around 11.7 million applications per year, 53% of them saw applications fall in 2016. And universities across the country are shuttering their MBA programs. Just this year, the University of Wisconsin, Wake Forest University, Thunderbird School of Global Management, Virginia Tech and Simmons College have closed their traditional two-year MBA programs.

Part of this decline probably has to do with the decreasing return on investment at business schools. Tuition has been on the rise at all programs, while only top business schools have the strong starting salary figures to justify it.

"We do now have more candidates coming to us saying that they want a top MBA or no MBA at all,” Emma Bond, a director at Fortuna Admissions, told the Financial Times.

Yet at the same time, students now have more options in starting their career in business, and other skills are often more practical. 

"If you are looking to be a middle manager in a large company, maybe an MBA is still useful,” Mark Davis, an MBA in New York, told the Times. “But for a startup, don’t waste your time.”

Top CEOs: A profile

Besides higher degrees, HBR's top CEOs make for a homogeneous group. A depressing 98% of the CEOs are men, with just two women in the top 100: Debra Cafaro of Ventas and Marillyn Hewson of Lockheed Martin. 

The median age is 60, with 8% older than 70 and just one younger than 50: Huateng "Pony" Ma of Tencent, who is 45. The group are also veterans at their own companies, with a median of 14 years at their company.

Just 19% are considered outsiders in their industries, according to HBR, with the remainder gaining most of their professional experience in their current industry.