The Ivy League and the Presidency

I recently stumbled on to this article at Times Higher Education about the incredible dominance of Oxford University as the alma mater of almost every single U.K. Prime Minister since the end of World War II.  That got me thinking… what about U.S. Presidents? Were they all educated at Harvard and Yale? I knew the answer was no – Gerald Ford was quite the football star at Michigan – but I wanted to know just how much the Ivy League and like institutions dominate US Presidential politics. The answer is something along the lines of “quite a bit, but not as much as you might think.”

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Harvard, Yale, and… Texas State? All three of these universities have educated U.S. Presidents.

Since the beginning of World War II, we’ve had 14 presidents. Only one, Harry S. Truman, did not have a college degree. Truman took night classes at what is now University of Missouri at Kansas City towards an LL.B., but decided to drop out after he lost his re-election as county judge (Yes, re-election. Truman was a judge without a law degree).

Of the remaining 13 presidents, six – Trump, George H.W. Bush, Reagan, Johnson, Carter, and Eisenhower – earned only bachelor’s degrees. The remaining 7 earned graduate degrees. All but one of those (George W. Bush’s MBA) are law degrees.

Presidents are no strangers to the college transfer. Obama started at Occidental College before transferring to Columbia, and Carter started at Georgia Tech before entering the Naval Academy.

Three presidents – Obama, Nixon, and Reagan – attended liberal arts colleges, and two – Truman and Johnson – attended regional comprehensive universities. Yet, the predominant alma mater of Presidents is the elite research university. Among the 14 presidents there are 15 degrees from elite research universities. Clinton has three degrees from these elites, and Obama, George W. Bush, and Roosevelt all have more than one Ivy League degree. In fact, when you consider that Eisenhower was once president of Columbia University and that Ronald Reagan’s son Ron attended Yale, only three do not have some Ivy League connection. Those three are Nixon, Truman, and Johnson… and Nixon went to Duke!

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Presidential education by institution type.

The truth is our Presidents received fairly elite educations, meaning they attended university with the political, social, and economic elite. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. However, the fact that only Johnson and Reagan attended and graduated from only non-elite institutions should be a cause for concern. The majority of Americans don’t attend elite institutions. They attend places like Texas State. Not to say Texas State isn’t a fabulous institution (it is),  but we can all agree that Texas State isn’t joining the Ivy League any time soon.

In fact, if we want our Presidents to be more in touch with the majority of the United States, one way to start may be to elect Presidents from Texas State, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Cal State Fullerton, and Middle Tennessee State University. These regional comprehensive universities are diverse, public, economic engines for their states that educate way more people than all the Ivies combined.

So, let’s celebrate Texas State every time we talk about Lyndon Johnson. And let’s look for politicians from places like it – if only to break the monotony of the Ivy Plus crowd. Electing Bobcats, Spartans, and Blue Raiders instead of Bulldogs, Trojans, and Blue Devils might just provide some fresh ideas about how colleges and universities can serve the public sphere.

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