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The Surprising Truth About Warren Buffett's Education

By Patrick Morris - Nov 2, 2014 at 11:01AM

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We know a lot about one of the greatest investors of all time, but it turns out the truth of Warren Buffett's education will surprise you.

Source: The White House. 

While he has been happy to teach us over the years, what isn't discussed often is Warren Buffett's own education. And both the details and his perspective on all of it will surprise you.

University of Nebraska Love Library. Image Source: Flickr / David Keyzer.

The unique path
While many know of Buffett's ties to Nebraska -- he's affectionately called the "Oracle of Omaha" after all -- what isn't discussed is the fact he went to high school in Washington, D.C., after his father was elected congressman in Nebraska's second district.

After graduating from high school in 1947, he moved even further from his home state of Nebraska, and attended his first two years of college at Ivy-League stalwart and highly acclaimed Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.

But Wharton wasn't for him, and looking for change he transferred to the University of Nebraska where he would go on to graduate with a degree in economics in 1950. In a conversation with students at the University of Nebraska 20 years ago, Buffett said: 

After two years at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, I transferred here and I must say that I thought that my year here was considerably superior to either of the years I'd had at Wharton. I got a lot of education.

So what was it about the University of Nebraska relative to Wharton that made Warren Buffett enjoyed his education so much? He would later add in a 2001 interview with the former dean of the College of Business Administration at the University of Nebraska, Cynthia Milligan: 

The teachers at the University [of Nebraska] turned me on. There wasn't a class that disappointed me. I was close to my professors, who actually taught the classes, at my previous undergraduate college, graduate students taught the classes.

Buffett would go on to add:

I had a great experience at Nebraska. Probably the best teacher I had was Ray Dein in accounting. I think everybody in business school should really know accounting; it is the language of business. If you are not comfortable with the language, you can' t be comfortable in the country.

The sting of rejection
Upon graduating, Buffett's father urged him to apply to graduate school at Harvard. While he had great credentials, his interview with a Harvard alumnus in Chicago didn't go as planned. Buffett told Fortune magazine in 1988:

What this representative of higher learning surveyed, Buffett says, was 'a scrawny 19-year-old who looked 16 and had the social poise of a 12-year-old.' After ten minutes the interview was over, and so were Buffett's prospects of going to Harvard.

Yet while "the rejection stung," the article goes on to say that " Buffett now considers it the luckiest thing ever to have happened to him, because upon returning to Omaha he chanced to learn that Ben Graham was teaching at Columbia's business school, and immediately -- and this time successfully -- applied."

Source: The Motley Fool.

The lucky break
Upon learning Graham was at Columbia after thumbing through magazines following his rejection, Buffett immediately got in touch with the dean of the business school at Columbia and was ultimately accepted.

And the reason for Buffett's interest in learning under Graham was simple. As he noted in this year's letter to Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A 1.75%)(BRK.B 2.02%) shareholders:

I learned most of the thoughts in this investment discussion from Ben's book The Intelligent Investor, which I bought in 1949. My financial life changed with that purchase... I can't remember what I paid for that first copy of The Intelligent Investor. Whatever the cost, it would underscore the truth of Ben's adage: Price is what you pay, value is what you get. Of all the investments I ever made, buying Ben's book was the best (except for my purchase of two marriage licenses).

Buffett would go on to study and eventually work under Graham for two years. But when you consider the insights learned from The Intelligent Investor and the countless other things he learned in the three years they spent together, Buffett has done nothing but praise Graham for the impact he left on him.

In the Berkshire Hathaway owner's manual, Buffett notes:

Though we continue to be unwilling to talk about specific stocks, we freely discuss our business and investment philosophy. I benefited enormously from the intellectual generosity of Ben Graham, the greatest teacher in the history of finance, and I believe it appropriate to pass along what I learned from him, even if that creates new and able investment competitors for Berkshire just as Ben's teachings did for him. 

The key to remember
In today's world, we're often led to believe success can only come to those who attend the most highly acclaimed institutions with the biggest and most well-known companies on their resumes. But just like investing, when it comes to education, Buffett shows us you ultimately get out what you put in.


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