Whether it was intended or not, the recent Politico analysis showing that 41% of senior- and mid-level Biden White House staffers (82 out of 201 aides analyzed) had Ivy League degrees has caused a brouhaha, re-igniting debates about the relative importance of academic pedigrees, the hubris of educational elites, and the exclusionary consequences of accepted notions of meritocracy.
Biden’s list of appointments has been contrasted with those of Donald Trump, who bragged about the intelligence and prestigious educational backgrounds of his senior officials and aides (Trump once said his team had ”the highest IQ of any Cabinet ever assembled.”). However, assuming he meant to equate Ivy Leaguer with intelligent, only 21% of the comparable positions initially appointed by Trump were Ivy League graduates, according to Politico.
But it turns out that Joe Biden’s (or Donald Trump’s) selection of Ivy Leaguers and others from what are widely endorsed as top-shelf colleges and universities is nothing new. As revealed in a new paper, US Cabinet Pedigree and Perceptions of University Elite Status, authored by Jacob Bower-Bir, an affiliated faculty member at Indiana University’s Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, U.S. presidents have chosen their cabinet heads and other senior aides from a narrow band of prestigious colleges and universities since at least the Kennedy administration.
In his paper, which has not been peer-reviewed yet but is available at the open platform RPubs, Bower-Bir presents preliminary data about the educational pedigree of the American executive branch across eleven presidential adminisrations, from President Kennedy until midway through President Trump’s administration. It includes both confirmed and acting appointees at the top levels of the specified agencies and councils (e.g., secretaries, security and economic advisers, chiefs of staff, etc.). (B0wer-Bir and his research assistants are in the process of updating the data for the Biden administration.)
Bower-Bir coded the colleges these senior appointees attended as being either “elite” or “common.” The elite schools included the eight universities in the Ivy League (Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Pennsylvania, Harvard, Princeton, Yale) plus 16 others determined through commonly understood academic groupings and a scientific survey of the American public (Duke, Georgetown, U. Chicago, MIT, Johns Hopkins, Cambridge, London School of Economics, Oxford, Vanderbilt, Notre Dame, Boston College, Boston University, Carnegie Mellon, New York University, Northwestern and U. California, Berkeley). “Common” schools were simply everyplace else.
Cabinet members and other agency directors were coded according to the highest status of any undergraduate or graduate degree they received. If, for example, an appointee held a degree from an Ivy League school (dark blue), and another from elite school (light blue), they were coded as “Ivy”. Twenty four cabinet/agency heads were coded across eleven presidential administrations (Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, H.W. Bush, Clinton, G.W. Bush, Obama, Trump), for a total of 548 observations.
First, here is a chart showing the proportion of the various cabinet/agency heads who were educated at an Ivy or other elite institution across the eleven administrations.
Next, here is a breakdown by presidents. Every administration in the past seven decades had a cabinet where the majority of appointees came from elite colleges, with the exception of George H. W. Bush, and even in his case, the percentage of appointees educated at an elite school was far greater than the percentage of their graduates in the general population.
What to make of this pattern? Does it mean that the senior leadership of American government is in the best of hands, guided by the sharpest of minds? Is it a desirable pattern, a reason for optimism and confidence? Or is it one more example of a misguided and mis-shaped meritocracy that is unrepresentative of the country and excludes those with genuine, but too easily overlooked, talent?
Is this another manifestation of the merit myth that’s been critiqued by commentators such as Michael Sandel and Nicholas Lehman? Is it a realization of the arrogant society envisioned by Michael Young, who coined the term…