Where do presidents and prime ministers go to school?

In his most recent essay, After the credentials, Paul Graham tells us that in South Korea where “college entrance exams determine 70 to 80 percent of a person’s future.” Fortunately, the Americans know better: “Where you go to college still matters, but not like it used to.”

Paul writes good essays, but they are thin on research. How much is your alma matter a predictor of your success? The research is available. For example, in Regression and Matching Estimates of the Effects of Elite College Attendance on Career Outcomes, Brand and Halaby write:

Our results suggest that in terms of college quality, there is not only no direct effect on mid- and late-career attainment, but no significant effect at all.  This study questions the consequential belief that an elite college education necessarily translates into privileged socioeconomic status throughout the life course.

To sum it up: If you are a privileged kid, you will do well even if you go to a local college.

Because my research budget for this blog is $0, I will do my own survey about a special job: the presidency in the USA and the office of prime minister in Canada. Do state leaders attend a small set of colleges?

Let us review where the American presidents got their first degree:

What about Canadian prime ministers?

Based on this evidence alone, if I were to coach a kid for a political career, I would ignore where he gets his degree. This makes sense. You  become president or prime minister several years after earning your degree. By the time you have the experience required for the job, any college premium is gone.

See also my post The 2 myths getting students into ivy-league schools.

Note: I am a graduate of the University of Toronto, maybe the most prestigious university in Canada.

Published by

Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the Université du Québec (TELUQ).

3 thoughts on “Where do presidents and prime ministers go to school?”

  1. Given the anti-intellectual bent of many Americans, it’s a good idea down-play your education if you’re a politician. That may limit the value of an ivy league education in politics. Maybe an ivy league education is more valuable in the private sector.

  2. (In Canada, where I live, tuitions are pretty flat and getting into a “good” school is not difficult. There are very few bad colleges in Canada, and the difference between the very best and the average ones is tiny.)

    @John The problem I have with most studies stating that a nicer education lead to, say, a better income, is that they do not have a control set.

    What you really need to do is compare an individual X with or without a degree.

    Obviously, Harvard graduates earn more than the average public, but the students entering Harvard are not representative of the average public.

    Routinely, it is found that state universities do more for their students, because they take students who would not have attended university and give them a degree and good earnings.

    Otherwise, it is quite easy to take the crème de la crème and give them a degree and good earnings. These people are often quite bright before they even enter college. They are bound to do well, no matter what the school does.

    In any case, predicting who will do well is extremely difficult. So, to identify how much Havard is worth is very difficult. Almost certainly, it is not worth the tuitions being paid. But thankfully, people paying the tuitions do not care. See, if you are joining a country club, you want it to be expensive! That is the whole point!

    Disclaimer: I am a professor in a state university in Canada.

  3. You’re absolutely right. The kind of person with the confidence and financial resources to apply to Harvard is likely to do well even if they don’t attend. Seth Godin ran with this idea and made a tongue-in-cheek proposal to start a very exclusive business school that would give you your degree immediately on admission.

    I’m reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. It overlaps a great deal with our discussion here.

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