Among all the individuals elected president of the United States in the last 22 years, every one of them has graduated from Yale or Harvard—and George W. Bush holds degrees from both schools. What’s more, in the six elections since 1988, ten of the twelve nominees of both parties went to Harvard or Yale.
One of the anomalies in recent presidential history is that the domination by these two institutions has increased, rather than decreased, since the long-ago days when Harvard and Yale were among the only major universities in the country. Among the first 25 presidents, only three went to Yale or Harvard; since 1900, among our last 19 chief executives, nine earned credentials from those two schools. Meanwhile, all nine current Supreme Court justices hold Yale or Harvard degrees. In some cases – as with presidential contenders John Kerry, Al Gore, and George W. Bush – their educational credentials clearly related to privileged family connections, but in others – as with Presidents Clinton and Obama, or Justices Thomas and Sotomayor – the Yale and Harvard degrees came in spite of modest, even troubled, backgrounds.
The recent prominence in the leadership class of the nation’s two most competitive schools reflects the aggressive workings of an educational meritocracy more than the continued importance of prominent families.