Elite Private Universities: Are They A Good Value?

A comparison of the costs of public versus private institutions was the focus of my last post.  However, cost is only part of the equation; we also have to consider the career outcome of graduating from public and private institutions.  As I noted previously, with careful course planning students can get a quality education at most public and private institutions, but do degrees from public versus private universities lead to the same outcomes?  While there is no perfect measure of the quality of education, we can assess outcomes fairly clearly.  Lifetime career opportunities are not solely determined by alma mater, but one’s alma mater plays an important role.  To assess the impact of a degree from public and private institutions on lifetime career opportunities, I surveyed educational data on all 100 members of the US Senate, CEOs of the top 100 of the Fortune 500 corporations, and almost one hundred television news personalities.  Presumably, these individuals have achieved considerable success by most objective criteria.

           Sources of Degrees of Highly Successful People in the US
Private Elite Public Elite Other Total
Number of Degrees 129 (29.4%) 17 (3.9%) 292 (66.7%) 438
Number of Institutions   16   (8.0%)   5 (2.5%) 180 (89.6%) 201
χ² = 38.591 p<.001


For each individual, I recorded their alma mater/s and the degree/s they received, for a total of 438 degrees awarded from 201 institutions to the 294 subjects in the study.  The results show that a degree from an elite private university and membership in this small subset of highly successful people are highly statistically correlated (p<.01).  Elite private institutions are the schools of choice for individuals who are in positions to influence social and political policy in the US.  These policy makers are:

1.  College graduates.  In fact, only 8/94 televisions news personalities, 4/100 CEOs, and 1/100 US Senators did not graduate from college.

2.  Graduates of elite private institutions.  Almost 30% of the degrees awarded to study subjects are from elite private institutions, while theses institutions make up only 8% of the total number of degree awarding institutions.  Harvard alone accounts for almost 10% of the degrees (39/438 total) awarded from the 201 institutions.  If one only adds data from Yale and Princeton, three universities make up 60/438 degrees or nearly 15% of the total number of degrees earned by the 294 individuals in the sample.

These data suggest that a sample of highly successful politicians, business leaders, and television news personalities were educated at a disproportionately small number of institutions.  Private elite universities account for almost 30% of all the degrees awarded but only 8% of the institutions represented.  This means that graduates of very few institutions are in pivotal positions to influence public policy in the US.  The take home message is that while you can get an excellent education at a variety of colleges and universities, if you want to maximize the probability that you can influence public policy on a national level, a degree from an elite private university, and better yet, Harvard, is a must.

If you are satisfied practicing law in Atlanta, GA, a law degree from the University of Georgia is likely as good as a degree from Harvard.  However, if you have aspirations on the national level, then application, admission, and graduation from an elite private institution offers significant long-term career advantages, not in terms of the quality of education, but for the social network one can develop.    If you doubt my contention, consider Presidents Bush 41 and 43, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates (although the last two did not graduate) for starters.



Follow me

EO Smith

Interests include biological anthropology, evolution, social behavior, and human behavior. Conducted field research in the Tana River National Primate Reserve, Kenya and on Angaur, Palau, Micronesia, as well as research with captive nonhuman primates at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center and the Institute for Primate Research, National Museums of Kenya.
EO Smith
Follow me

Latest posts by EO Smith (see all)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *