Harry Truman didn't have a college degree. Lyndon Johnson graduated from Southwest Texas State Teachers College. Richard Nixon got his undergraduate degree at Whittier College, and Ronald Reagan graduated from Eureka College.
From 1948 - 1988, just one elected President (John F. Kennedy) had a degree from an Ivy League school.
Over the past three decades, things have changed.
Since 1988, every single President (including our next President) has had at least one degree from an Ivy League school. Every President in that span has also had a parent or a child--sometimes both--attend an Ivy League school. The same period of time has also seen college tuition skyrocket, and witnessed the creation of a whole industry focused on getting students admitted to the best schools.
So why this history lesson? After all, the President isn't our only leader.
In fact, at least half the country would argue that any given President isn't a leader at all.
But it does matter--even if you have zero interest in politics, let alone ever wanted to be President. The presidency is a powerful symbol of our "pick yourself up by the bootstraps" idea of what it means to succeed as an American, which includes the belief that success--even at the highest levels--shouldn't be restricted to graduates of elite institutions.
It also matters because the same time period has seen widening income inequality, and increasingly different career outcomes and lifetime earnings potential for college graduates and non-college graduates--to say nothing of the difference in lifetime earnings for graduates of elite colleges and, well...the rest of us.
People like you and me.
It's also debatable whether or not Ivy League leadership has served us well--and the questionable track record of graduates from elite schools isn't limited to just politics.
Jeffrey Skilling, former Enron CEO and longtime inmate of the Federal Prison Camp in Montgomery, Alabama, was a proud and prominent alumnus of Harvard Business School. John Thain, former CEO of Merrill Lynch, avoided prison but left his position in disgrace after receiving large bonuses just prior to Bank of America's government assisted purchase of Merrill in 2009.
Thain became a poster child for the greedy executive--and yet another example of a disgraced HBS alumnus. Rajat Gupta, former Managing Director of McKinsey and another graduate of Harvard Business School, was released from prison earlier this year after serving 19 months for insider trading.
Obviously, corporate and political failure isn't limited to Ivy League graduates. There are examples of failed leaders throughout society, and those failed leaders come from a variety of backgrounds.
But we need to rethink our educational paradigm.
College needs to be more affordable, accessible, and relevant. We need better ways to identify talented people who follow an atypical path to success, which may not even include a college education at all.
And we need to stop putting so much weight on where our leaders and aspiring leaders went to school, and focus instead on their character, ability, and prior record of success.
I've known some really great people who graduated from Ivy League schools.
But I've known many more who have a degree from their local state school--if they have any degree at all.
Personally, I wasn't Yale material.
I was never going to be a Harvard man.
Statistically speaking, there's a good chance you aren't Yale or Harvard material, either.
But that doesn't mean we can't be leaders.