Those applying for college, or close to someone who is doing so, have seen many college guides, and maybe they have even read some of them. Such books fill many store shelves. More are written every year. Still, my favorite source on college choices is not found in that section of the store.
It is “The Almanac of American Politics” by Michael Barone and Chuck McCutcheon. I use it to identify which colleges our nation’s leaders attended. There is a tendency in this country to think that if you get into one of the most-selective schools — such as Yale, Georgetown or Columbia — you are destined for greatness. Our most recent presidents attended those campuses, adding to the misimpression that if you’re not a brand-name college grad, you are doomed to obscurity.
The almanac proves that wrong. If you sort the states alphabetically, these are the schools the current governors attended for the first 25 states on the list (Alabama through Missouri):
University of Alabama; University of Puget Sound; Glendale (Calif.) Community College; Arkansas State; University of California at Berkeley; Wesleyan; Boston College; Brown; University of Missouri at Kansas City; Mercer; Union College; College of Idaho; Georgetown; Hanover; Iowa; Kansas State; Kentucky; Brown; Husson; Catholic; Harvard; Michigan; Yale; Southern Mississippi; Missouri.
What of our local leaders? Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley is the Catholic University of America graduate above. Virginia Gov. Robert. F. McDonnell graduated from Notre Dame, and D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray from George Washington.
These distinguished governors include just four Ivies — Brown graduates Jack Markell (Del.) and Bobby Jindal (La.), Harvard graduate Deval L. Patrick (Mass.) and Yale graduate Mark Dayton (Minn.). The rest attended a mix of big state universities and small private colleges. Few of those institutions would excite much interest in the senior classes of this region’s most competitive high schools, yet those less-sought-after institutions produce the vast majority of our nation’s most accomplished citizens.
In my 2003 college guide, “Harvard Schmarvard,” I found this pattern in other top jobs, among them chief executive officers of Fortune 500 companies and network news anchors. Some business giants such as Bill Gates never finished college. With the exception of ABC’s Diane Sawyer, a Wellesley grad, network anchors rose to prominence without prestigious degrees. Scott Pelley of CBS went to Texas Tech. Wolf Blitzer of CNN went to the University at Buffalo. Brian Williams of NBC attended Catholic and George Washington, and Shepard Smith of Fox attended the University of Mississippi, but neither graduated. They got closer than the late Peter Jennings of ABC, who was a high school dropout.
A 1999 paper by Princeton economist Alan Krueger and Mathematica Policy research scholar Stacy Berg Dale reported that, except for low-income students, the selectivity of students’ colleges did not correlate with their success in life, as measured by income. More influential were what the researchers called “unobserved characteristics,” such as persistence, humor and warmth.
It’s interesting that students usually develop these character traits long before they get to college. If you want to succeed, worry less about what college you get into and more about doing your homework, taking care of your chores and being nice to other people, as mothers have been saying for a long time. Whatever college accepts you, see it as a treasure trove of people and ideas that will lead you to a great life, maybe even a governorship, if that’s your dream. It is a very American story sometimes forgotten in our fashionable yearning for colleges that reject the most applicants.
For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.