Harvard and Yale Über Alles?

harvard-yale-logosIt seems that George Mason lawprof David Bernstein has spotted a trend:

The president went to Harvard, and barely defeated a primary opponent who went to Yale. His predecessor went to Yale and Harvard, and defeated opponents who went to Harvard. The previous two presidents also went to Yale, with Bush I defeating another Harvard grad for the presidency. And once Elena Kagan gets confirmed, every Supreme Court Justice will have attended Harvard or Yale law schools.

I know that Harvard and Yale attract a disproportionate percentage of America’s talented youth, but still, isn’t this a bit much? Are there no similarly talented individuals who attended other Ivy League schools, other private universities or (gasp!) even state law schools?

As someone with three degrees from two state universities, I truly sympathize.  And it’s mighty white of a Yale Law grad like Bernstein to point this out.

I would note, however, that he’s comparing very different things.

Supreme Court nominees are, after all, hand picked by the president.  They quite likely benefit from an elite bias towards graduates of those schools.  Further, it’s presumably easier to get a Supreme Court clerkship and otherwise get the right holes on one’s ticket punched if you’re a graduate of what are widely acknowledged as the top two law schools in the country.  In any event, it may indeed be worthwhile to be cognizant of this bias and consider whether, say, a Stanford or UCLA grad might add some needed diversity to the High Court.

Presidential nominees, on the other hand, are voted on in more-or-less open elections by ordinary citizens.  So, if the Democratic and Republican nominating electorates happen to favor graduates of those schools, it’s presumably a function of something else.  Perhaps those schools really do get the cream of the crop? Or perhaps the kind of people with the ambition and other skills necessary to politic their way to that level are also the kind of people who scheme to get in to Harvard and Yale?  Or perhaps the early signaling advantages — or network effects — of attending those schools is hard for graduates of other schools to overcome?

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. I don’t think, in general, we pay sufficient attention to path-dependency in terms of career achievement. There are many fields in which where you went to school is an absolute game changer. And the problem is that, of course, the selection process is essentially random among the self-selected applicant pool. Every applicant to Harvard and Yale law has stellar LSAT and a superb undergrad record, even the 85% who are rejected and end up at Chicago, Columbia, Stanford, Berkeley, etc.

    And yet, those Harvard and Yale kids have a disproportionate opportunity for sexy clerkships, and other key resume builders. It is a lottery that admittedly only smart kids can enter, but nonetheless that provides indefensible benefits.

  2. The correlation to family amongst graduates seems abnormally high to consider a degree from these universities a true meritocracy. Especially when one follows through into politics.

  3. Ugh says:

    Bernstein is being both over and under-inclusive.

    Princeton gets short-shrift because it doesn’t have a law or business school, otherwise it would end up on this list.

    I think over the next 10-20 years Stanford would move up to Harvard/Yale status, though it’s hampered by its distance from Washington DC.

    Kagan – Princeton undergrad
    Sotomayor – Princeton undergrad
    Alito – Princeton undergrad
    Scalia – Georgetown Undergrad (wiki says he would have gone to Princeton if accepted)
    Breyer – Stanford undergrad
    Kennedy – Stanford undergard
    Ginsburg – attended Harvard Law but graduated from Columbia Law; Cornell undergrad
    Thomas – Holy Cross undergrad

    Still, if you include Princeton and Stanford undergrad/law schools on the selection list, that leaves only Scalia/Ginsburg/Thomas as having gone to a school other than Harvard, Yale, Stanford, or Princeton.

  4. Dantheman says:

    Knowing the eminently ignorable Prof. Bernstein’s political views (which, along with his views on the Arab-Israeli conflict seem to be the vast majority of his posts at Volokh), I suspect he thinks this is an argument against the appointment of Kagan. Of course, his comments on this issue when Roberts (Harvard and Harvard) and Alito (Princeton and Yale) seem to be missing from the record.

  5. the Q says:

    I got accepted to Harvard and I always wondered if my essay pointing out the bias of the East Coast establishment Ivy League schools against west coast high school graduates was the reason.

    I wrote that 66% of all Harvard undergrads came from east coast boarding schools and that there was seemingly a systemic bias against students from public high schools as their admissions percentages were inversely proportionate to actual high school attendance figures.

    My gambit was simple: I was accusing the admissions officials of bigotry and bias.

    My ruse was that if they rejected my application, they would prove my accusations were true.

    But, if they granted me admission, they would be refuting my charges by proving that they didn’t discriminate and that my charges were groundless.

    Of course I got accepted (I did have a 3.9 and 1510 SAT which helped – but then so did everyone else!)

    I always believed that I “guilted” them into accepting me.

    P.S. I went instead to UCLA on an athletic scholarship, but did attend HBS later.

  6. Triumph says:

    I always believed that I “guilted” them into accepting me.

    You totally did. If there is one characteristic trait of liberals, it is guilt. Liberal guilt is why we have such abominations like affirmative action, Wise Latinas, welfare, fealty to the United Nations, weakness, etc…

    We need leaders who have chosen to reject these bastions of knuckleheaded elitism.

    Our next president should have a Real America education, which can only be provided by an education from a combination of patriotic colleges like Hawaii Pacific University, North Idaho College, University of Idaho, and Matanuska-Susitna College.

  7. the Q says:


    Great satire…keep it up! You almost had me thinking you had your head up your ass.

  8. Drew says:

    A HBS grad should have figgerd out Triumph faster, and have a better appreciation for satire.

  9. Drew, its easier to imagine that everyone on the other side is really like that.

  10. steve says:

    James- Your post on interns applies here methinks.


  11. The schools mentioned are also ones that are not generally known for their science or engineering. Given how technical modern society is, it is wise to have the government largely divorced from the understanding of it?

  12. sam says:


    Drew, its easier to imagine that everyone on the other side is really like that.

    Gee, Charles, you ought to see someone about that easily bruised heart–it’s seems to give you an awful lot of trouble.