Read it. The picture is of Yale, of course, with Harkness Tower in the distance.
Frank Bruni’s new book, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, argues that the college you attend doesn’t really matter so much. The coveted Ivy League—and the wider range of elite schools—have more applications than ever before, but Bruni recommends that anxious students and their status-obsessed parents caught up in the admissions madness should calm down and relax—the school you go to cannot define you.
And, of course, that’s not an argument anybody’s making. The school you go to opens — or closes — doors, and that can be of inestimable value.
Which is, of course, both trite and true. In life, you are what you make of each opportunity. Yet Bruni himself, an influential New York Times columnist and prominent member of the US elite, makes an argument that somewhat contradicts his own educational history. After all, he graduated from a top public institution—The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill—and an Ivy League graduate school—Columbia University.
Would he be where he is today if he had just chosen a college or graduate school at random?
To Bruni’s credit, he does conduct some research to support his point. For example, he examined the American-born chief executives of the top 100 companies in the Fortune 500 and noted that roughly 30 went to an Ivy League school or equally selective institution.
However, why stop at 100? Why not examine the entire Fortune 500? That is, in fact, what I did in my research (pdf), published two years ago. And in an extended analysis from 1996 to 2014, I uncovered that roughly 38% of Fortune 500 CEOs attended elite schools (see the paper for the full list) for the last two decades.
Of course, that depends on how many schools are on your list of ‘elite schools’. Still, I doubt if it’s more than 25, in which case that 38% looks pretty impressive.
Based on census and college data, I estimate that only about 2% to 5% of all US undergraduates went to one of these elite schools. That makes all these US elite groups well above what you would expect in the general population. And this doesn’t even include the percentage who went to a “non-elite” graduate school.
And that’s puts things in perspective. When 5% of your candidates wind up with 38% of the top slots, there’s something going on.
But among people similar to Bruni’s social and family circle, who appear fixated on which college to go to, perhaps their hunch is not wrong. This is likely because many of these people know that where they went to school opened doors for them, regardless of the quality of the education they received—and that is why they want their kids to have those same opportunities. As members of the US elite, they want their kids to at least match if not surpass them, to have an advantage in life, and to reap the enormous benefits that come with that privilege. As my research shows, if you want to become a member of the US elite, an elite school (or grad school) appears to improve your chances.
And that’s what it’s all about. This is especially the case in the academia cohort of the modern clerisy. It is a truth universally acknowledged that your chances of a tenure-track position are far greater at Midwestern State University if you graduated from Princeton than at Princeton if you graduated from Midwestern State University.
Fun exercise for the reader: Compute out what percentage of Supreme Court Justices graduated from just Harvard Law, Yale Law, Columbia Law, or Stanford Law.