Can Public Universities Compete With the Ivies?

An executive search firm in the not-for-profit sector, Kittleman, has recently looked at two groups of highly successful heads of organizations: the chief executive officers of the Fortune 500 corporations and their counterparts at the 100 largest non-profit organizations listed on Forbes. It is not surprising that the captains of industry and philanthropy mostly went to college. But where did they go?

Looking first at the Fortune 500, more (14) top executives received their undergraduate from the University of Wisconsin than from Harvard (12). Of the nine schools with six or more CEO alumni, three were elite Ivy League Schools (Harvard, Cornell, and Penn) with a total of 28, exactly the same number as graduated from the three top public Big Ten athletic conference schools (Wisconsin, Michigan, and Purdue). Two of the remaining three top schools (University of California at Berkeley and Texas A & M) were also public institutions.

In total, exactly the same number (213) of CEOs of the 500 largest corporations received their undergraduate degree from public schools as did from private ones. Since the number of college graduates is greater at the public schools, the probability for a new graduate eventually getting to the top of the business enterprise pyramid is greater at private schools. Still, drive and ambition can get a public-school grad to the top. The Universities of Illinois and Texas had exactly the same number of CEOs (five) as Yale and Princeton universities. The mostly public Big Ten schools had 62 executives, far more than the 46 graduates of one of the eight Ivy League schools.

If you turn to the top 100 non-profit organizations, however, the private schools dominate. Some 55 attended private schools, compared with only 32 public ones (the remainder either did not graduate from colleges or attended schools in other countries). Of Yale’s nine CEOs, four (44 percent) ran non-profit organizations, while of Wisconsin’s 14 CEOs, only two (14 percent) did.

The path to the top appears to typically be a bit longer and more arduous for graduates of public schools than those from elite private institutions. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s College, the average annual salary of students after leaving school was $79,625 at the eight Ivy League schools, some 44 percent higher than at the 14 mostly public (Northwestern being the exception) Big Ten schools (where the average was $55,264). Graduates of elite private schools typically get better, more remunerative jobs from the beginning. But the best, brightest and most ambitious of the state university graduates have a decent chance to work their way up to the top.

Why does a larger proportion of leaders from private schools end up with non-profit organizations than their state university counterparts? I have two plausible explanations. First, private universities are highly dependent on private philanthropy—they are far more private donor and endowment-dependent. Students growing up in that collegiate environment might naturally gravitate more to the philanthropic endeavors that helped sustain them during their formative years.

Second, a fairly large proportion of graduates of highly selective private schools come from affluent families, far more than is the case with state-affiliated schools. These kids are accustomed to wealth and privilege, and therefore perhaps do not have as much drive to achieve wealth and power as do middle class or poorer kids attending more affordable state schools. The kids from the public schools who succeed are striving to succeed in the highly competitive but risky world of free market capitalism, while those from private schools are perhaps more interested in the somewhat less remunerative but also less risky and still very comfortable life of being a foundation executive.

One might think that the capture of the House of Representatives by the Democrats might lead to a surge in support for public higher education, for example pushing free college proposals. It might seem that Democrats highly concerned or even obsessed by the decline in intergenerational income mobility might seek to disfavor those on average affluent kids attending the elite schools that disproportionately pick our nation’s leaders, not only in business but elsewhere (e.g., politics). For example, they might favor an endowment tax on rich private schools used to help fund free college for lower-income kids.

I doubt this will happen for a simple reason: many progressive leaders have degrees from the elite private schools. I took 10 leaders allied with the Democratic Party including congressional powers like Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, and Chuck Schumer, and potential presidential candidates (like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, Joe Biden) and examined their educational background. Excepting Kamala Harris, all had a degree or had taught at a private college, including highly elite schools like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Columbia, Penn, Dartmouth, and Chicago.

The Kittleman study shows that ambitious individuals from modest family backgrounds who attend their local flagship state university can and often do become part of America’s corporate leadership. But it also shows that success is likely to be somewhat greater if you attended one of what might be termed America’s gated academic communities, the wealthy, highly selective, private schools of the Ivy League and beyond.


  • Richard Vedder

    Richard Vedder is Distinguished Professor of Economics Emeritus at Ohio University, a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, and a board member of the National Association of Scholars.

3 thoughts on “Can Public Universities Compete With the Ivies?

  1. Thanks for this very informative article (and for full disclosure, I’m a professor in a large public university). I agree with your explanation about why private college graduates are over-represented as the CEOs of non-profits (greater familiarity with that sector and less need to maximize their lifetime salaries due to their inherited wealth). But here’s another angle to the question of class mobility via public higher ed. Public higher ed students are more likely to stay close to home for their careers; I know this is true for my university and its graduates. They often have deep roots in their home state or even their city. They don’t necessarily regard a nationwide job search as an inevitable part of upward mobility. They don’t have the reflexive need to live on the coasts or other liberal enclaves. Several years ago, all the CEOs of my city’s handful of Fortune 500 companies were alumni of the local public university. They majored mostly in engineering, sought their first job locally, and simply rose in place. Moral of the story: public higher ed has a huge role in helping people achieve the American dream, even if their dreams don’t fit the elite narrative in all details.
    (Please don’t add my full name: I write here as a private citizen, not an employee)

  2. This is an interesting article but I have to raise one point — the CEO of today attended college in the 1970s.

    Hence the qualitative researcher in me has to question the relevance of these findings in that it’s an evaluation of institutions which essentially no longer exist. Not only have all of them descended into the purgatorial cesspool of political correctness (some more than others) but almost all of the professors who were in academia at the time retired long ago.

    Even if the higher education bubble doesn’t burst, and I believe that it soon will, how reliable is it to predict future outcomes from institutions that represent those of the past in name only? The Ivy League colleges have brand name recognition, but then Cadillac once did as well….

    Throw in the fact that some 88% of the companies named as the Fortune 500 in 1955 no longer exist. Once mighty Sears & Roebucks has filed for bankruptcy, as did other once “blue chip” companies such as General Motors and the PennCentral Railroad. Who knows who the future CEOs will be, or even if they will be Americans…

    My point is that I am not comfortable evaluating colleges on the basis of what they were like 40 years ago, particularly in their ability to prepare the students of today for jobs which may not even exist 40 years from now. There is also the larger question of the inherent value of a college degree as an employment credential that employers will pay a premium for.

    Sooner or later, we are going to have to ask if college is worth it….

    1. “Sooner or later, we are going to have to ask if college is worth it….” It isn’t.
      It’s a negative experience. All of my HS and university “Big Bang Theory”-type of nerds are university profd and researchers today. They know it – they see it today.

      As one “physicsprof” (posting at thenewneo) at an elite small Massachusettes college says, while he respects his department’s colleagues, campus life is “insane” outside of it – and he cannot wait to retire this December from the once well-ordered and formerly venerable groves of academe.

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