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Jay Mathews: Elite Colleges Don't Make Elite People

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By Jay Mathews
Monday, September 21, 2009

I promised a high school counselor in California I would update a very old online column whose printout on her wall is too faded to read. It asked a question I think students immersed in college visiting and application writing should consider: Where did your heroes go to college?

Most of us want our lives to have meaning. We want to add value, at least in some small way. We want to be admired.

What college do you go to for that? Where did the people we look up to get their degrees? Often it's not the best-known schools.

Let's look at government and business leaders. (I know. They have their flaws. But we are just getting started.) The past four presidents graduated from Columbia, Yale, Georgetown and Yale. But the four before them attended somewhat more modest institutions: Eureka, the U.S. Naval Academy, Michigan and Whittier.

Check out the alma maters of the first 25 state governors listed in the 2010 Almanac of American Politics: Alabama, Pacific Lutheran, Glendale Community, Arkansas State, Wisconsin at Superior, Colorado State, Old Dominion and Western Connecticut State (no degree), Brown, Florida State, Georgia, Cal State Northridge, Albertson College of Idaho, Georgetown, Princeton, Virginia Tech, Wichita State, Kentucky, Brown, Maine, Catholic, Harvard, University of California at Berkeley, Minnesota, Mississippi (did not graduate but got a law degree later) and Missouri.

How about the chief executives of the top 10 U.S.-based Fortune 500 companies? Pittsburg (Kan.) State, Texas at Austin, University College Dublin, Texas Tech, Texas at Austin, Dartmouth, Kansas, Gannon, Georgia State and Central Oklahoma.

Maybe we don't want to be politicians or tycoons. Whom do we admire? I start with my parents. They went to two-year Long Beach (Calif.) City College. My mother later graduated from UCLA, but my father, a voracious reader and a great wit, did not get a four-year degree.

I asked friends and relatives to name their heroes. Here they are in alphabetical order. A few of their choices might seem unusual, but I promised not to censor them: Muhammad Ali, Karen Allen, Luis Alvarez, Warren Buffett, Ken Burns, Bill Cosby, Bob Costas, Emily Dickinson, Don DeLillo, Richard Feynman, Bill Gates, Rudy Giuliani, Lee Iacocca, Steve Jobs, Garrison Keillor, Martin Luther King Jr., Billie Jean King, Sarah McLachlan, Bette Midler, Julia Morgan, Al Neuharth, Sarah Jessica Parker, Abe Pollin, Colin Powell, Anne Rice, Dot Richardson, Julian Simon, Ted Turner, Kevin Williamson, Oprah Winfrey, Henry Winkler and Tiger Woods.

That's 32 names. I would say 11 of them attended the sort of selective schools we would brag about if we got into them: software magnate Gates (Harvard), golfer Woods (Stanford), poet Dickinson (Mount Holyoke), civil rights leader King (Morehouse), economist Simon (Harvard), physicist Feynman (MIT), softball star Richardson (UCLA), physicist Alvarez (Chicago), computer magnate Jobs (Reed), architect Morgan (University of California at Berkeley) and media magnate Turner (Brown).

But I find it interesting that so many of them either dropped out (Gates, Jobs, Woods and Dickinson) or were kicked out (Turner -- twice!).

Some, such as actress Parker, boxer Ali and singer McLachlan, did not attend college. The rest went to less celebrated schools: Fashion Institute of Technology (actor Allen), Nebraska at Lincoln (tycoon Buffett), Hampshire (filmmaker Burns), Cal State Los Angeles (tennis player King), Temple (comedian Cosby), Syracuse (sportscaster Costas), Fordham (novelist DeLillo), Manhattan (former mayor Giuliani), Lehigh (carmaker Iacocca), Minnesota (humorist Keillor), Hawaii (singer Midler), South Dakota (newspaper publisher Neuharth), George Washington (Washington Wizards owner Pollin), City College of New York (secretary of state Powell), San Francisco State (novelist Rice), East Carolina (screenwriter/producer Williamson), Tennessee State (talk show host Winfrey) and Emerson (actor Winkler).

No one is sure where greatness comes from. These lists make clear that it does not have much to do with the name of the college on someone's diploma. See for yourself. Enter your hero's name plus the word "biography" on your favorite search engine and that person's college (or lack of one) should be there.

Researchers Stacy Berg Dale and Alan Krueger found that admirable character traits -- persistence, imagination, energy -- produce success in life no matter which college a person attends.

So relax. Be happy about your chance to spend four years at any school, soaking up the wisdom of the world and deciding what kind of life you want. Those of you who become heroes will discover most of the qualities that made you so were already in your possession.

Some of my friends will be disappointed that I have failed to follow their advice and explore the flip side to my thesis: Which colleges did our nation's least admirable people attend? It is an intriguing question. But I think I will leave that list for later, after I confer with the company lawyers.

E-mail mathewsj@washpost or try Jay's blog at http://voices.washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.


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