On the Ivy League and success

According to a study done in 2014, the University of Pennsylvania produced more billionaires than any other university in the world.  Numbers 2, 3 and 5 on the list were Ivy League institutions as well.

Photo by McElspeth

The Ivy League refers to 8 universities among the most prestigious higher education institutions in the Unites States and in the world: Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, and Yale University. 

Across the ocean, the Grandes Ecoles in France are the pinnacle of higher education. Presidents Sadi Carnot and Albert Lebrun attended the Ecole Polytechnique, arguably the top engineering Grande Ecole in France. Other presidents like François Hollande or Jacques Chirac attended  the Ecole Nationale d’Administration or ENA, one of the most selective and prestigious school, the Route 66 to high (actually very high) positions in the public sector.  President Valery Giscard d’Estaing attended both.

Getting into any of these venerable institutions is like reaching a straight 15 lane highway leading to success it would seem, and the statistics vouch for this statement. It is true that Ivy League or Grandes Ecoles alumni, to take the United States and France as examples, are disproportionately represented in fortune 500 or CAC 40 CEOs, Supreme Court judges, governors, Nobel price laureates, presidents and billionaires. Students at these institutions will have already found a dream job before graduating, on which they will pass, to aim for higher and get there thanks to the powers conferred to them by the word Yale. Or ENA if you are reading from France. Or Bocconi for our Italian friends.

We must however not forget that admission rates into these temples of knowledge are so narrow that only the most prepared, the most clever, the most versatile people will make it through the cut. The tuition fees at many of these institutions are through the roof, which tips the statistics in favor of the rich at universities like Harvard. Rich and clever. Are these not already markers of success in the world we live in? 

Besides, the practice of legacy preference at many of these schools favors the offspring of alumni, and if your daddy’s rich and your ma is good looking, then it is summertime all year long and the living is as easy as it gets.

So where do we stand… If you are very clever, very rich and well prepared, and your parents have preceded you on the path you plan to walk, then… will the education you get at Harvard, as excellent as it is, get you significantly closer to being a CEO or a billionaire? Or is it rather the network of alumni who look and dress and talk like you and the titles these institutions confer to you?

The question I ask is this: what part of success do you owe to the school name and what part to your hard work? What part do you owe to prestige and what part to your intellect? What part do you own to your choices and what part to the path on which your parents preceded you?

I do not have answers and God knows if anyone has, but I can sure make a case for less elitism: the Ivy League is not the only league. If God or Fate or the Cosmic Dice bestowed gifts upon our youth, intelligence be it or wealth, then why on earth would we want those gifts sealed behind a gate with a Yale lock? And why would we keep otherwise gifted people locked outside?

Why a Lock at all?

But also, why the rant could you ask? I don’t mind, I can hear that too…

Let the board sound