Mitt Romney, College, and our Penchant for Ivy League Presidents

I was listening (and watching) Mitt Romney’s Acceptance Speech last night at the Republican National Convention in Tampa. It was a decent political speech, and, thankfully, much better than Clint Eastwood’s effort (the octogenarian acted every bit his age and seemed off script and “lost” at points; but he could still beat the crap out of me).

Romney didn’t say much about college, other than families had hoped to put “aside a little more for college,” and that “every new college graduate thought they’d have a good job by now, a place of their own, and that they could start paying back some of their loans and build for the future.”

Those are surely true statements. I think most of us that try and save for college would like to save more, because we clearly understand that college is more unaffordable than it was when Obama came into office. But that doesn’t make it Obama’s fault, either. Too many cooks in that kitchen to point blame on anyone.

Romney also noted that jobs are needed for “23 million people and for half the kids graduating from college.” This last fact comes from an April Associated Press analysis of government data which shows that 53 percent of BA graduates under the age of 25 are underemployed, meaning they are either unemployed or working in jobs part-time or in areas that do not utilize their education.

And this is true.

This goes back to my serial argument of how much college do we need. If we have that many BA grads underemployed, should we be pushing more, or should we be pushing other forms of education? Let’s think about it. Let’s pin $20-100K of debt of students or family just so that half of them can be underemployed by the quarter-life. It doesn’t make sense.

Harvard economist Richard Freeman recently said this about college ROI

“You can make more money on average if you go to college, but it’s not true for everybody. If you’re not sure what you’re going to be doing, it probably bodes well to take some job, if you can get one, and get a sense first of what you want from college.”

We need to think more about what our “wants” and our “needs” for our nation; our children. I, like everyone else, feel pressure to send my kids to college. Why? Because I, too, feel that a college-level education is their best chance in this economy, knowing full well that this is the first generation in American history that will do worse, economically, than their parents.

And the disappointing reality is that, even with a college education, they will likely have lesser options than I did. We need to consider this issue in all its seriousness. What safety nets do we put in place for our college grads? If 53 percent are “underemployed,” we have a serious problem. This isn’t about our current economy, it’s about our business and industry that just doesn’t, nor will it, have that my positions for BAs. That’s a fact that no one wants to man-up to. No one wants to have that conversation.

Ivy League Presidents?

During Romney’s speech, I started wondering how representative our presidents—Republic and Democrat—are of the population. At least through the lens of higher education.

So I compiled a list (see below) of the alma maters of our presidents since the late 1800s. I included Romney just to show the potential for a trend. If Romney doesn’t make the November cut, then place the frontrunning president for 2016: Jeb Bush, who is a Longhorn.

It doesn’t take a policy wonk like me to see a few different trends here. First, of the 22 people on the list, 10 attended Ivy League institutions. We have to go back to 1988 to get to our last non-Ivy president, Ronald Reagan, who kind of doesn’t matter because his vocation was an actor, not a lawyer or other professional. Ivy degrees were also hot back in the early 20th Century, led by Woodrow Wilson, arguably the most educated President in history who also served as President of Princeton University.

If we push the Ivy League envelop to include other Ivy-like institutions, including Stanford, Duke, the US Naval Academy, and West Point, our number jumps to 15 of 22 (68 percent, or about two-thirds for our mathematically-challenged readers). And if we extend a wee bit more to include other institutions that lead to law degrees et al., we jump to 18 of 22, or 82 percent (yes, 4 out of 5).

Does this mean anything, including the most recent trends? It depends on your perspective.

On one hand, it shows that the CEO for the country has attended one of the best universities in the world. We want our President to be ultra-smart and ultra educated. Interestingly, Truman was our only president since 1897 that did not have a college degree. Truman did just fine as president and ended World War II.

On another hand, it makes us wonder about how “representative” our presidents have been and continue to be compared to US citizens. A selective group that probably measures 0.05 percent of the US population is consistently chosen to lead the nation. But is that because of their “ultra-smarts” or because they somehow got in to these seemingly elusive institutions?

Let’s look further at the list. The three last Republic presidents, including Romney, can be described as preferred. Romney’s father was a Governor; George W. Bush’s father was President of the United States; and Bush senior’s father was a US Senator. Interestingly, the last four Democrat presidents came from relatively modest backgrounds.

Not too much can be read into this analysis. It is what it is. But it does show, to some degree, that attending an Ivy-league institution, especially in the modern presidency, seems to open the political doors for future presidents. Many of us have consistently said that attending an Ivy institution isn’t as much about what you learn; it’s about who you meet. This apparently continues to ring true. You can only bet that at least 75 percent of our next 5-6 presidents will have attended 1 of about 8 institutions in the US.

I wonder what’s in the water?

NOTE: Table data compiled by W. Swail, August 31, 2012. 

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About Educational Policy Institute

The Educational Policy Institute is a Washington, DC-based research think tank on education and the social sciences. EPI conducts evaluation and policy studies on various educational issues from Pre-K to workforce outcomes in the United States, Canada, and beyond. Visit us at educationalpolicy.org.
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