Lang Kirchheimer, SwitchYard Media, special to MSN Money.

Work hard, invest prudently, stick to a budget.

That’s the kind of useful advice a high school commencement speaker might share with new grads as they prepare to venture into the world.

But the cold, hard truth is that even the most conscientious and industrious individuals sometimes stumble and fall, while others seem to glide through life for no other reason than that they were born in the right place, went to the right schools and inherited the right genes.

Click through to the next pages to see some of the factors that could determine whether you are likely to enjoy a life of luxury.

Lang Kirchheimer, SwitchYard Media - Universities that produced the most billionaires


Schools that churn out billionaires

It is widely known that college graduates earn more over their lifetimes and are far more likely to be employed than those without a diploma. “A college degree is key to economic opportunity, conferring substantially higher earnings on those with credentials than those without,” said a 2011 report by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

But all diplomas are not created equal. Far from it. The chart above shows which colleges are most likely to churn out billionaires. Harvard is on top, with nearly twice as many billionaire alumni as the No. 2 contender, the University of Pennsylvania, according to a study by Wealth-X, a firm that identifies “ultra high net worth” individuals.

    Lang Kirchheimer, SwitchYard Media - CEOs and average height

    CEOs loom over their co-workers

    On average, CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are at least 6 feet tall, more than 2 inches taller than the average American man, according to a 2005 survey. Perhaps more striking, 58% of CEOs are at least 6 feet tall, compared with only 14.5% of all men, according to Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink.”  

    One study concluded than an inch of height is worth an average $789 a year in annual salary, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars over a lifetime of earning.

    Lang Kirchheimer, SwitchYard Media - Demographics of family

    Born wealthy, stay wealthy

    Going from rags to riches is relatively rare. Brookings Institution research shows that only about 5% of children born into the poorest income bracket ascend to the uppermost bracket. The research found more economic mobility among those raised in middle-class circumstances. As children mature, about 40% remain in the income bracket in which they were born.

    Lang Kirchheimer, SwitchYard Media - How races impacts family wealth

    The race disconnect

    While all U.S. households have experienced income growth averaging 74% over the past 20 years, there has been very little change in the wealth gap between races.

    For example, the median income for white households in 1990 was 72% higher than the income for black households was, according to Census data. In 2009 white median income was still 63% higher than the median for blacks.

    Lang Kirchheimer, SwitchYard Media - The Stanford marshmallow test

    Patience pays off

    If you are willing to delay gratification, you are likely to end up healthier and probably wealthier. That is the conclusion drawn from research pioneered by the now famous Stanford marshmallow experiments of the late 1960s.

    The experiments -- conducted on 3- to 6-year-olds -- posed a dilemma. The children were given the option of receiving one marshmallow immediately or waiting 15 minutes to get two marshmallows.

    Researchers followed up decades later and found that children who could delay gratification had better life outcomes, including higher educational attainment, which generally leads to higher income. Those who were able to delay also had, on average, fewer behavioral problems and lower body mass index.

    Lang Kirchheimer, SwitchYard Media, Inc. - The richest U.S. counties

    The richest counties

    The wealthiest households are mainly clustered in just a few metropolitan areas, led by Louden County in northern Virginia, the wealthiest in the nation with an annual average income of $115,574.

    Wealth seems to cling around the federal government, not just in the nation’s capital, but the National Laboratory in Los Alamos County, New Mexico where the average household income was more then twice the state average. The map above shows the nation’s wealthiest counties as well as the poorest.

    Lang Kirchheimer, SwitchYard Media, Inc. - Income by profession

    Pick your profession carefully

    As a group, medical doctors remain the best-paid professionals, making more than $166,400 a year on average, exceeding the upper measures of the Census survey. Certain engineers, managers and lawyers all are likely to make more than double the nation’s median household income of about $50,000.

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