Where's the Love For Princeton Law School?

From David Bernstein

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 Yale and Harvard, and Harvard, respectively. 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?

For what its worth, I have a Princeton undergrad degree and an MBA from Harvard and the number of Harvard-Yale-Princeton employees working for me in our 420-employee firm is ... zero.


  1. elambend:

    It's amazing that your firm runs so well with such a deficiency...hopefully for your employees a Yalie will come along to lead the way ;)

  2. M:

    There are plenty of talented youth from humble middle-class backgrounds who, being adverse to debt and student loans, humble themselves and attend their state's flagship institution, never even bothering to apply to Harvard or Princeton. Some never achieve their true academic potential--they find themselves with the wrong set of peers and never receive the academic mentoring and support that is so crucial for future success.

    I find this Harvard-Yale-Princeton cartel a bit unsettling. I fear that society is placing too great an emphasis on pedigree and not enough on work ethic and integrity.

  3. Mark:

    First off there is no Princeton Law school, Hasn't been since before the civil war I think.

  4. Max:


    Why should someone in a non-ivy league have more work ethics and integrity, because he is the underdog? That's BS. I can understand risk-aversity, but then he obviously doesn't value a degree that much or he's not as ambitious as some of his peers. I also don't like the focus on school degrees that much, because it only represents one quality: Being able to learn a lot in a short time and being organized. Yes, those are good qualifications, but they are in no way the most important ones in a real job.

    On the topic of which Ivy school is the best, I'd say kudos to Princeton for not having so many of their graduates stumbling into politics and being unproductive =)

  5. bob sykes:

    What Harvard and Yale do is networking the children of the ruling class.

    The quality of the education they offer is not demonstrably better than that offered by a good state university, although the quality of the students is, very much so.

    However, the guarantee of a ticket to the big show is well-worth the $200,000 price of admission.

    As Kagan just demonstrated yet again.

  6. IgotBupkis, President, United Anarchist Society:

    Anyone besides me think this may be part of the reason for the monobrain thinking processes in DC?

  7. IgotBupkis:

    > they are in no way the most important ones in a real job.

    And what, praytell, sirrah, does that have to do with working in DC?


  8. Sol:

    I think to most of us in the non-Ivy-League world, the whole thing seems a bit bizarre. I mean, my high school academic record was reasonably spectacular, and I think the closest I came to thinking about Yale, Harvard, or Princeton was wondering if I was big enough to play on Harvard's football team. I did briefly consider applying to MIT just to see if I could get in, but never really considered not going to the University of Michigan. I studied high-level math and computer science with top people; my only real academic regret is that Douglas Hofstadter moved from U of M to Indiana University before I got a chance to study with him. (Well, and that I didn't take the second year of Great Books.)

    It seems to me that the Ivy League is only over-represented in fields where it's more important who you know than what you know....

  9. Tim:

    Does this extrapolate to Harvard and Yale producing a much higher percentage of all politicians and bureaucrats? If so, I'll definitely keep my kids from attending either...

    BTW, any good lists of schools for kids who like the sciences, or engineering, which also have a libertarian bent?

  10. me:

    Bit offtopic, but Taibbi wrote a great article about the major problem in the current political landscape: tribalism.

    Quote: "It seems to me that a huge problem that Americans on both sides of the aisle have is that they believe in personal freedom, but only for themselves; for the other guy they seem always to want a powerful and intrusive federal government. Red staters and blue staters are both equally guilty of this in my experience. You get conservatives asking for a federal ban on gay marriage and then in the same breath screaming that abortion should be a states-rights issue. And you get progressives who want to pass their own state-by-state medical marijuana laws clamoring for federal bans on handguns."

    (article is here: http://trueslant.com/matttaibbi/2010/05/10/miran-duhhhhh/)

  11. Jeff:

    It is impossible that the only qualified candidates for Supreme Court justice all attended the same two law schools.

    This type of intellectual inbreeding erodes support for our judicial system, and I believe leads to bad decisions (i.e. Kelo, Raich, etc.)

  12. William Newman:

    I don't know how to objectively cross-check claims of excellence in fields like law, but in technical fields it seems possible. It seems common to try to do it by looking at retrospective measures like Nobel prizes awarded, but I prefer not to trust human judges and human hindsight so much. Thus, I place particular weight on families of predefined challenge problems where performance is easy to define and measure (and where the barriers to entry are low, so you aren't just seeing the downstream effect of a subjective gatekeeper).

    I think by far the most famous historical example of such a widely-accepted challenge stated by a central authority was the "Hilbert problems" --- many had clear solutions requiring nothing more than pen, paper and deep thought, and it was often unambiguous who had priority in publishing a solution.

    More recently I don't know of anything quite comparable to the Hilbert problems, but there are many implicit families of widely-accepted high-prestige challenge problems. E.g., algorithms improving performance of error-correcting codes, or algorithms for breaking well-known cryptosystems. (There are also lots of less-important explicit challenge problems which still deserve bragging rights: e.g., it is unsurprising but significant to me that Bert Rutan apparently excelled in open model aircraft competitions.) My strong impression from what I've seen of performance in such challenges is that academic institutions do a reasonably good job of concentrating top technical talent in their graduates and faculty in a way that matches their perceived quality --- well enough, e.g., to place some constraints on theories that they are a seamless conspiracy of old-boy's clubs covertly excluding qualified people from disfavored groups. But they're not nearly good enough at recognizing and concentrating talent for a pure merit-based selection of 9+ people to give such a strong two-institution dominance as we see here.

    Perhaps law institutions are vastly more effective at recognizing, recruiting, and training top talent than technical institutions are?

  13. William Newman:

    me, how many conservatives scream "abortion should be a states-rights issue"? The usual conservative beef is how the Supreme Court discovered that the Constitution protects abortion. I can't think of any right-winger with much influence who has argued that federal legislation on abortion is or would be unconstitutional --- that'd be too clearly inconsistent with the broad conservative support for the War on Drugs. (Conservatives tend to have some respect for some aspects of the rule of law, including this one. In contrast, leftists seem to be comfortable with "screaming" (that being the verb you find "great" when characterizing a position in tribalistic advocacy, right?) catchphrases like "right to control her body" to justify the fine print discovered in the penumbra which protects birth control, abortion, homosexuality, and homosexual marriage while still allowing laws against prostitution, polygamy, pornography, recreational drugs, unapproved medicinal drugs, cosmetic surgery, sex-based abortions, medical imaging of fetuses, etc.)

    If you want honest criticism of an actual right-wing position for inconsistency on an issue of this sort, I'd nominate the double standard that rediscovery of the limitations of the commerce clause stops when such rediscovery would limit the War on Drugs. "If a mere act of Congress was good enough when Jesus imposed Prohibition, it's good enough for me."

  14. Rapid:

    Tim: I don't know if my Alma mater would qualify as libertarian but certainly wasn't indoctrinated in the mid-80's. It does manage to foster independence and team skills through its project approach. http://www.wpi.edu

    A lot of state schools have great engineering.

  15. Matt:


    For engineering, look into Milwaukee School of Engineering in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

    It is a private school, not government run.
    It is a small school, total student body < 4000 when I was there in the late 90s.
    No tenure, so instructors can be fired for injecting politics or any other off topic garbage in to their classes.
    It is not a research institution. While instructors can conduct their own research, this must be secondary to teaching. The school's administration considers education their primary mission and instructors are expected to teach their own courses even the undergrad courses. No undergrad courses being taught by grad students.

  16. John Dewey:

    M: "There are plenty of talented youth from humble middle-class backgrounds who, being adverse to debt and student loans, humble themselves and attend their state’s flagship institution, never even bothering to apply to Harvard or Princeton.Some never achieve their true academic potential–they find themselves with the wrong set of peers and never receive the academic mentoring and support that is so crucial for future success."

    Am I reading this correctly? Are you suggesting that by not attending an Ivy League school one risks one's career success due to lack of connections?

    So who heads up our nation's largest non-financial corporations?

    ExxonMobil - Rex Tillerson, B.S. - University of Texas
    WalMart - Micheal Duke, B.S. - Georgia Tech
    General Motors - Ed Whitacre, B.S. - Texas Tech
    Chevron - John Watson, B.S. - University of California - Davis, MBA - Chicago
    Hewlett Packard - Mark Hurd, B.S. - Baylor
    IBM - Sam Palmisano, B.S. - Johns Hopkins (and former sax player with the Temptations)
    Valero Energy - William Klesse, B.S. - Univ of Dayton, MBA - West Texas A&M University
    Verizon - Ivan Seidenberg, B.S. - City Univ of NY, MBA - Pace University
    McKesson - John Hammergren, B.S.- Univ of Minnesota, MBA - Xavier
    Proctor and Gamble - Bob McDonald, B.S. - U.S. Military Academy, MBA - Univ of Utah

    Ivy League pedigrees may be important for financial corporations, and for Supreme Court nominations. But these guys above, and many, many others just like them, have proven that results counts for so much more than pedigree.

  17. Dr. T:

    I agree with Bob Sykes and Sol: Most people don't go to Harvard or Yale for the education; they go for the connections.

    I was a chem major at the Rochester Institute of Technology and went to medical school at State University of New York in Brooklyn. There were Ivy Leaguers in my medical school class, but I was far ahead of them academically. My science undergraduate education at a relatively unknown school was far better than what students got at Princeton, Columbia, Rutgers, etc. I remember being astonished at how poorly prepared some of my "well-educated" classmates were: They were floundering in our first semester biochemistry and anatomy courses. They remembered none of their general and organic chemistry. They had never dissected anything more advanced than a frog. They didn't remember the basics of circulation, respiration, digestion, etc. It was simultaneously pathetic and humorous.

  18. txjim:

    I blame PowerPoint. Shiny penny boys and girls, selling shinola, who have no history of real accomplishments but somehow convince boards to hire them to run multi-million dollar corporations. That lines up with Coyote's recurring theme about bad incentives.

  19. John Dewey:

    txjim: "Shiny penny boys and girls, selling shinola, who have no history of real accomplishments but somehow convince boards to hire them to run multi-million dollar corporations."

    I don't know much about leadership at multi-million corporations, but I do know something about leadership at multi-billion dollar corporations. The guys at the top definitely have histories of real accomplishments.

  20. bob sykes:

    Dear Tim:

    There are no libertarian schools, only degrees of center-left schools.

    As to science and engineering, just about any Big 10 or Pac 10 school plus U Texas Austin, Texas A&M, Georgia Tech, Clemson, Duke and U Florida.

    Cal Tech and MIT are strongly oriented towards producing university faculty and very much less towards producing practicing engineers. Otherwise excellent.

    Stanford, Dartmouth and Princeton have good programs, too.

  21. ParatrooperJJ:

    Don't take this personally, but I have never met a Harvard MBA graduate who could run a business. It is a highly overated school.

  22. The other coyote:

    I graduated from law school in 1994. I don't know anyone who went to Harvard law or Yale law that is my age or younger who isn't a minority, and I've practiced law in 3 different large cities in the South over the last 16 years.

  23. Dan:

    I'm very happy with the connections I made going to a small liberal arts school in Illinois, followed by grad school at Northwestern. I never felt like I had to go to the East Coast to succeed in my life. But many people, at least in upper middle class circles here in the Midwest, seem to think it's required that their children get an Eastern education, preferably ivy league.

  24. marque2:

    I don't think Kelo was a bad decision. I didn't like it, but I didn't think it was bad. Where does it say in the constitution that eminent domain can only be for public works?

    Anyway in the years since, it has gone to the states, and states where the populous really was angry about this type of land grab, actually got laws passed at a state level. Problem solved.