In the world of entrepreneurs, we have this notion that a formal education has no bearing on one’s future income, because “anybody can found a Fortune 500 company.” While that statement is true, is the “anybody” typical, or just a rare exception?

In the world of education, we have the opposite perception – that income predetermines how well we’ll do at school. Mired in poverty, a child doesn’t start the day with a healthy breakfast, lives in a violence-filled ghetto and has to leave school early to earn much-needed cash. Is this image real, or more something Hollywood has been serving us?

The answer to such questions is…yes. And no. And, well, sometimes. It turns out that making grand sweeping statements serves politicians and lobbyists better than truth seekers.

Zach Thompson crunched some numbers for USATestprep. He drew on three publicly available databases on income, home ownership and parents’ level of education, then correlated them with USA Test Prep’s own test score data. And the results were surprising. According to Zach Thompson:

“The results of this research were surprising to us, as it shows contrary to conventional wisdom, that income does not always affect student performance.”

First, what was not surprising was that in school districts where average per capita income varied from $20,000 and up, income and test scores correlated. So school districts with $30,000 per capita income and up showed better results than districts with income of $25,000 to $29,999, which in turn showed better results than districts with income of $20,000 to $25,000.

That’s not the surprising part.

Bar graph - data on income and test scores

The surprising part is how well people from districts with income below $19,999 – the really poor people – did on their test scores. They averaged 62 percent. That’s 5 percent higher than people in districts with income of $20,000 to $25,000, and even two percent higher than the really rich people.

Does this mean there is a cache of geniuses hiding out in the ghetto? Does it mean that extreme poverty is a motivation to study harder? Is there another explanation? We don’t have answer to that, but I would love to see the research.

A bigger question for us entrepreneurs is what this means on the street.

Well, in the job market, education can make a difference, certainly in many fields. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers and architects all make well above-average income, and you can’t even get into those fields without the mandatory education and accreditation.

But what does that mean for entrepreneurship? There is no accreditation required to found a company; People like Steve Voudouris just do it. And if you scoured 1,000 articles on how to become an entrepreneur, I doubt you’ll find a single one that advises going back to school. They all focus on:

  • Having a great idea
  • Building a strong team
  • Perseverance
  • Understanding your customer
  • Focus
  • Creativity

Mostly, these are innate talents or qualities you can’t learn in school. Let’s take a look at the data, which the Kauffman foundation for entrepreneurship collected from 549 company founders in a variety of sectors.

Almost all of company founders are university educated, with at least a bachelor’s degree. Half of them have an advanced degree, such as a master’s. There are not many high school drop-outs among them.

Do income and education predict each other?

Even more interesting are the income numbers. Whereas the USATestprep data shows that the very poor and the very rich school districts produced the best test results, almost none of the entrepreneurs surveyed came from very poor or very rich backgrounds.

It seems that education has a very strong influence on an entrepreneur’s ability to carry an idea through to becoming a successful company, so quitting school is not usually a great entrepreneurial move. Instead focus on those classes that will be most helpful. However, just because the rich have access to better education and the poor are motivated to excel, doesn’t mean they will make the most successful entrepreneurs.

Sure, there are more than one way to read data. And there are many different data sets that one could review. So nothing we are reporting here is definitive. The main takeaways are these:

  • Education is valuable, don’t give up on it.
  • You don’t have to be rich to become rich, thanks to education.
  • Don’t make too many across-the-board assumptions about money and education.