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Relevance of elite universities appears to be on the decline

WASHINGTON—You can count on one hand the number of Harvard College alumni who've won the coveted MacArthur Foundation "genius" grants in the past five years. Ditto for Yalies. And there've been 119 winners.

It's just one recent hint that attending an elite college may mean less than anxious applicants think it does. Another is a Harvard Business School analysis due out next month that finds the number of alumni from prestigious undergraduate schools declining among top business leaders.

It appears that corporate headhunters and MacArthur judges, who will confer grants on about 20 more creative leaders in the arts, sciences and public policy Tuesday, are pretty democratic when it comes to educational backgrounds.

"We don't say, `This one went to Harvard—great; that one didn't—too bad,'" said Daniel Socolow, the director of the fellows program at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in Chicago. "At least at this program, it's what a person's doing and thinking and getting to, not their academic pedigree."

He's not kidding. A Knight Ridder tally of biographies of MacArthur Fellows named from 2000 to 2004 found that they attended 82 different colleges and universities. To Socolow, this was a pleasant surprise.

"We're actually doing what we say we're doing," he said.

Eight winners since 2000 of MacArthur's no-strings $500,000 grants, paid out quarterly over five years, never graduated from college. Five of them never attended one. But here's the real balm for stressed-out college applicants: More than 30 MacArthur winners graduated from schools that aren't on the latest U.S. News & World Report ranking of the 100 top U.S. colleges and universities.

The fellowships recognize what the foundation calls "exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work" in many fields. A secret network of 100 nominators, whose membership rotates frequently to minimize string-pulling, scours the country for candidates, who can't nominate themselves. A smaller secret panel winnows the nominations to about 30 finalists. The foundation's board makes the final selection.

Among past winners are evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, novelists Cormac McCarthy and Edward P. Jones, poet Derek Walcott and Children's Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman—none of them undergraduate Ivy Leaguers.

A Harvard Business School study of the 20th century's top 1,000 business leaders, due out in October, finds similar academic diversity. The executives, handpicked for innovation, management skills and bottom-line performance, turn out to have attended more than 200 different colleges. Among them are scores of uncelebrated ones, such as Abilene (Texas) Christian University and Muskingum College in New Concord, Ohio. Moreover, while Ivy League graduates dominated U.S. businesses in the first half of the century, the study reports that their numbers fell sharply after 1950.

According to Anthony Mayo, the executive director of the business school's leadership initiative program, "Ivies now have less relevance as a status marker for people who are moving up."

He's co-author of the HBS Press book "In Their Time: The Greatest Business Leaders of the Twentieth Century," which explores the shift by comparing the backgrounds of business leaders who graduated before 1950 to those who graduated in 1950 and afterward. Among its findings is a big increase in the last half of the century in the number of business leaders from schools outside the U.S. News' top 100.

A separate study by Spencer Stuart, the New York-based global executive search firm, also finds declining Ivy League representation among chief executive officers of Standard & Poor's 500, a list of blue-chip companies traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Harvard College and the University of Wisconsin now tie for the most CEOs—15—on the list, according to Spencer Stuart. Also among the top 10 are the University of Texas, the City University of New York and the Universities of California, Missouri and Washington.

There are several theories, each probably partly right, about why the national role of elite colleges seems to be declining.

Harvard's Mayo thinks the GI Bill, which provided federal education grants to millions of World War II veterans, got things going by stoking the Ivy League's competitors.

"It provided a huge opening of opportunities for people of different social and economic classes, and lessened the importance of connections" for success in business, he said.

Surging numbers of former GIs with tuition money to spend strengthened regional and local colleges and universities, he added. A generation later, the number of talented Ph.D.s so far exceeded the jobs available at fancy institutions that talented scholars enriched hundreds of schools nationwide.

While many of these now provide access to high-quality undergraduate education, Mayo said, graduate schools at places such as Harvard continue to enjoy "elitist focus."

Jay Mathews, the author of the admission guide "Harvard Schmarvard," offered a different theory.

Mathews, a Harvard alumnus, contends that elite schools for undergraduates may not be ideal for imaginative ones.

"The kind of creative and risk-taking traits that MacArthur looks for are not encouraged in an Ivy League education," Mathews said. "Kids who go to the Ivies nowadays are those who are really good at following the rules and gaming the system.

"As far as imagination goes, it's not something that Ivy League admission offices look for. They may even be a bit put off by it."

Historian David Levering Lewis of New York University, a 1999 MacArthur Fellow who's taught at Ivies and elsewhere, agreed.

"By the time people get to elite places, they've often invested so much psychic energy to get there that they're inclined to plateau," he said. "You get kids who are superb mechanically, but I think the imagination quotient is a little lacking these days."

Patrick Terenzini, a professor at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Pennsylvania State University, offered a third theory: What students do in college is far more important than where they do it. "What matters is students' engagement with their educational opportunities," wherever they go to college, Terenzini wrote in an e-mail.

A 1998 MacArthur Fellow, Charles Lewis, an award-winning investigative reporter for "60 Minutes" who went on to found the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington watchdog group, lived that theory.

Lewis, who defied his guidance counselor's advice not to go to college given his grades, enrolled at the University of Delaware in Newark, his hometown. He thrived in class, worked nights for the local paper and even found being a townie reassuring.

"I didn't have to act a certain way or do certain things," he said. "I wasn't trying to impress anybody; I was just trying to prove to myself that everybody was wrong about me."

Lewis, 51, who'll teach at Princeton and Harvard next year, sounded unimpressed by them.

"Who can forget that Albert Einstein worked in a patent office and had mediocre grades?"


For more on MacArthur winners, go to and click on "MacArthur Fellows Program."

For more on the academic backgrounds of S&P 500 CEO's, go to Scroll down to "General Analysis" and click on "Educational background."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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