One of the most powerful American myths is our belief that the higher the rank and prestige of a college, the better it is. I got a lesson in how wrong that was when I was young, but it took a while to sink in.
I spent my freshman year at Occidental College in Los Angeles. It was not well known nationally then or now, even though President Obama spent two years there. I picked Oxy because it was not far from my Bay Area home and had a wellregarded program for future diplomats.
After a year I transferred to Harvard. This was before the U.S. News & World Report rankings, but the school enjoyed an exceptional reputation. It was the oldest college in the country and the alma mater of John F. Kennedy, who was president when I was in high school.
I was captured by that mystique. If the university was famous, I thought, then it had to be great. That turned out to be untrue.
I was disappointed when I arrived two months before the 1964 presidential election and found none of the lively political debates I had had at Oxy. The California college’s student body was closely divided between Democrats and Republicans. We had wonderfully loud arguments in the dorms late at night. At Harvard I had trouble finding any Republicans.
Then I discovered that the two-year Western civilization course I had begun at Occidental, the best class I ever had, did not exist at Harvard. The university’s faculty refused to organize a course like Oxy’s that combined politics, art, literature, and economics, believing that arrangement to be awkward and unsophisticated.
What saved Harvard for me was the student newspaper,The Crimson. I spent most of my time there and learned the trade I still practice 45 years later. Once I went to work at The Washington Post I learned I could have had the same experience at any state university with an enrollment large enough to support a daily paper. This became clear as graduates of The Ohio State University, the University of Michigan, and the University at Buffalo-The State University of New York rose to positions more powerful than mine, and started deciding if I was going to get a raise or work on a weekend.
Here is a simple test of the theory that high-ranking colleges produce the most success. Ask where your boss’s boss’s boss—go as high as you can—went to college. In most cases it will not be a school in the U.S. News top 10.
Pull out Michael Barone’s Almanac of American Politics and see where our governors and senior U.S. senators went to college. Here are the alma maters of the first 10 governors: The University of Alabama; Pacific Lutheran University; Glendale Community College; Arkansas State; University of California, Berkeley; Wesleyan University; Boston College; Brown; the University of Missouri-Kansas City; and Mercer University. Here are the colleges of the last 10 senior U.S. senators: the University of South Dakota, Vanderbilt University, The University of Texas at Austin, Brigham Young University, Saint Michael’s College, the United States Naval Academy, Washington State University, Harvard, the University of Wisconsin, and The George Washington University.
There are just two Ivy League graduates among this group of political leaders. Occasionally you even find someone without a four-year degree, such as community college graduate and Arizona Governor Jan Brewer. They are capable and ambitious men and women who made their way without needing to attend a nationally known university.
The secret of their success was character. Were they persistent, charming, and careful enough to get ahead? An important piece of research indicates many colleges have built myths of excellence not by adding value to students’ lives but by recruiting lots of students with strong characters developed before going to college.
In 1999, Princeton economist Alan B. Krueger, now chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisors, and Stacey Berg Dale, now a health researcher at Mathematica Policy Research Inc., examined a surprising trend Dale discovered in longitudinal studies of 14,239 college graduates. In their study, titled “Estimating the Payoff to Attending a More Selective College: An Application of Selection on Observables and Unobservables,” they agreed that graduates of more selective colleges on average had higher incomes than graduates of less selective schools, but not because of any significant differences in what those colleges gave their students. They found that students with character traits that pleased selective college admissions officials did just as well financially in the 20 years after graduation as those who attended less selective colleges. A key finding was that students accepted by selective colleges but who decided to attend non-selective colleges did just as well as those who accepted admission.
Many brilliant and successful people attended colleges that rank low on the U.S. News list, while some abject failures attended Harvard. My college class included the future star actor John Lithgow and future governor and cabinet member Tom Ridge. It also included Alan J. Horowitz, who sent one of his class reports from a state prison in Fishkill, N.Y. He told his classmates his life had been “an uninterrupted saga of frustration and loss.”
Then there is Steve Coll, author, business and foreign correspondent, and former managing editor of The Washington Post. He earned two Pulitzer Prizes. (I have won none.) He writes for The New Yorker and runs the New America Foundation. Where did he go to college?
Occidental. Unlike me, he stayed all four years and got his diploma there. He went on to dazzle the journalistic world without having even a library card from a top-ranked school.
Going to a well-known college is not going to do you any harm. If you get into one and want to go, do so. But your success in life is going to depend on you, not your college.
If you get into one lower on the list, but in sync with what you want to do with your life, send in your deposit. People who know you best will eventually judge your college on the basis of what they know about you, not the other way around.
Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for The Washington Post.