Educating the U.S. Senate

Official government photograph of the 111th U.S. Senate

Official government photograph of the 111th U.S. Senate

What, if anything, can we learn from examining the colleges attended by the 100 men and women of the U.S. Senate? Quite a lot, actually.

Last week, I decided to start an interesting experiment in which I would research which institutions of higher learning the current members of the U.S. Senate attended, which degrees they earned, and what  (if any) difference exists between members of the two major parties. No long introduction is needed here, so I’ll just jump right in to the numbers and analysis.

  • What’s that about Government Dependence?: There are certain popular perceptions about Republicans and Democrats that are accepted by nearly everyone, regardless of whether or not the actual evidence supports them. For example, “Democrats are better supporters of public education,” and “Republicans don’t believe in taking handouts from the government.” Well, who knows if those are true or not, but here is what I can tell you: 64% of Republicans in the U.S. Senate received at least part of their college education at a state school (i.e. taxpayer subsidized) compared to just 49% of Democrats. That seems like a big enough difference to be considered significant. Public schools not good enough for you, Democrats? Oh, and Republicans, is it ok to receive taxpayer funding if it’s your college education that is getting subsidized? I kid, of course.
  • Looking Down at the Little People: Let’s bust up another stereotype: “Democrats are more in touch with average Americans, while Republicans are just a bunch of privileged rich kids.” If you ask me, nothing says privileged and non-average quite like an Ivy League education. If education and connections are the ultimate currencies in today’s world, then the Ivys are where it’s at if you want a leg up on the competition (and the value is probably more in the connections department than the actual quality of education). 35% of Senate Democrats have gained some or all of their college education at an Ivy League institution. For Republicans, the number is a measly 13%, far higher than the average U.S. population, but nowhere near that of their political rivals. This means that Democrats in the U.S. Senate are almost three times more likely to have climbed the highest of ivory towers. But don’t worry – they still care about the little people…a little bit.
  • We don’t know if there’s a doctor in the House, but there are three in the Senate!: If you have to experience a medical emergency, better to do so in a Republican caucus meeting than a Democratic one. Why? Because the Republican caucus boasts three M.D.s (Paul, Coburn, Barrasso), while the Democrats have a total of zero. That’s not the only profession that seems to be favored by one party over the other. Three Republicans have M.B.A.s (Hoeven, Thune, and Enzi) compared to just one Democrat, and an additional three Republicans have a B.B.A., so maybe that old adage about conservatives being business-friendly is true after all. At least they’re more likely to be knowledgeable about business, in theory. Three Democrats have an M.P.P. or M.P.A. (Master’s of Public Policy/Administration – Brown, Merkley, Reed), but their Republican colleagues seem to be uninterested in government bureaucracy, as they have a total of zero such degrees. Democrats have two members with M.S.W. (Master’s of Social Work – Stabenow and Mikulski) degrees, proof positive that they want the government to be raising your kids…or that they really care about helping others. Who’s to say?

    All Souls College at Oxford University, photographed in 2008

    All Souls College at Oxford University, photographed in 2008

  • Oxbridge Calling: As someone who got part of my education across the pond, I was particularly interested to see which Senators had studied abroad, particularly in the United Kingdom. First of all, I can tell you that none of them have a degree from a foreign country that isn’t England – not a great surprise, really. Five Democratic Senators attended a British college or university: Richard Blumenthal, Chris Murphy, Mark Kirk, Cory Booker, and Tom Udall. Two went to Oxford, two went to Cambridge, and one went to the London School of Economics. Only one Republican spent some time with the Brits, and not one I might have expected: Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana. So does this mean that Democrats are more internationally oriented? That they like Europeans and/or foreigners better than their own countrymen? That they have a superior understanding of the wider world? Or were they, like me, clever enough to figure out that they could save a lot of money getting a Master’s degree in the UK rather than at those expensive private schools on the American East Coast? Nah, it’s probably because they want to turn America into Europe. Vive la Socialism!
  • Lawyers, lawyers, and more lawyers: The most favored profession among members of both parties is, not surprisingly, the Law. 58% of Democrats and 44% of Republicans can put the title “J.D.” after their names. This does suggest that the Democratic preference is slightly stronger, but basically people who want to be politicians like to take the Law route, or perhaps people who are lawyers like to go on to politics. I think it’s more of the former, but I suppose the point is debatable. Not surprisingly, our current president, a former Democratic Senator, is a lawyer.
  • Degrees of Separation: One thing that is certainly true across the board is that the members of the U.S. Senate are very well educated. 69% of Republicans and 75% of Democrats possess not only a Bachelor’s degree, but also a graduate degree of one kind or another. Perhaps this goes to show that simply having a lot of knowledge isn’t enough to make you good at governing, though the Senate has perhaps a bit more respect among the American people than their colleagues in the House. Still, if you want to be a U.S. Senator, odds are you’re going to need to go to a graduate school. If it happens to be Harvard University, so much the better. That leaves poor Sen. Mark Begich as the odd man out: he never earned a college degree of any kind. Then again, neither did Jesus Christ, but he was already omniscient, right?

    Official logo of Harvard University, used for commentary purposes only

    The official logo of Harvard University is used for commentary purposes only.

  • The Harvard Rule: There’s still nothing quite like Harvard, at least not if you want to make it to the U.S. Senate. Check out this list of their alumni within one of the nation’s most prestigious clubs: Mike Crapo, David Vitter, Pat Toomey, Ted Cruz, Richard Blumenthal, Carl Levin, Al Franken (yes, Al Franken), Chuck Schumer, Jack Reed, Mark Warner, Tim Kaine, and Jay Rockefeller. Hmm, no women…interesting.
  • Looks (and Words) can be Deceiving: And the most prestigiously educated Republican is arguably…Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who did his undergraduate work at Princeton and his graduate study at Harvard. Somehow, I feel like that should make him ineligible to be the favorite of the anti-establishment crowd, but what do I know? Just because he attended the same schools as the Obamas doesn’t mean that he has to turn in whatever the conservative version of a “man card” is. Maybe he was trying to bring it down from the inside, right?
  • When Home isn’t Good Enough: A few senators apparently were not aware of what their future political career would be when they selected their education institution. Sen. Rob Portman represents Ohio, but his alma mater is the University of Michigan. Ron Johnson is the U.S. senator from Wisconsin, but he attended one of its Big 10 rival s, the University of Minnesota. (Well, calling it a “rival” might be a bit charitable, but the point still stands.) The two senators from New Hampshire attended Penn State University (Kelly Ayotte) and the University of Mississippi (Jeanne Shaheen). I guess they didn’t feel the University of New Hampshire was up to snuff. A common state school attended by future senators from out of state was the University of Virginia. Given that school’s strength in political science, such a choice is perhaps not surprising. At least Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown can proudly wear the scarlet and gray, having received two graduate degrees from Ohio State University after doing his undergraduate work at Yale.
  • Church and State, Unseparated: A significant percentage of senators attended faith-based institutions. Republican senators Jeff Flake, Mike Crapo, Orrin Hatch, and Mike Lee all attended Brigham Young University, the Harvard of Mormonism. Senators Bob Casey and Tom Harkin both attended law school at Catholic University, while Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly completed all of his higher education at the University of Notre Dame. These are just a few of the many examples of senators attending Catholic institutions. There are a few more evangelical types sprinkled within the Republican caucus: Dan Coats went to Wheaton College, Tim Scott went to Charleston Southern University, and John Thune attended Biola University.

    The main Georgetown University campus as photographed in 2010

    The main Georgetown University campus as photographed in 2010

  • Taking Power Back from Washington…or Not: Several senators are no strangers to life inside the Beltway, having completed part or all of their education there. As previously mentioned, Harkin and Casey attended Catholic University. Three senators are alumni of George Washington University: Republican Mike Enzi, and Democrats Elizabeth Warren and Mark Warner. Not surprisingly, Georgetown’s list of Senate alumni is the longest of the D.C. schools: Murkowski, Barrasso, Hirono, Durbin, Kirk, McCaskill, Reid, and Leahy. Only the first two of those are Republicans, so perhaps Georgetown is a bit liberal after all.

I conducted this research using publicly available information about the education beyond high school of U.S. Senators. I realize that, due to human error or ambiguity, my statistics could be slightly off (After all, it’s not like I went to Harvard…), but I think that a double check would indicate that they are pretty darn close. I trust that some of my findings are helpful in understanding where the members of the Senate are coming from, and even why they seem to have so much trouble getting along. Maybe it has even helped to put to death a stereotype or two – one can always hope.

So if yours truly was a Senator, to which of the two caucuses would I likely belong? Well, for starters, I do have a graduate degree, so that puts me in league with the majority of senators, but it’s only an M.A., so that doesn’t really help us narrow it down. I did not attend a state school, so that moves me slightly closer to the Democrats. What pushes me even further in that direction is that I went to school in the UK, studying International Security no less. Yes, the particular college I went to was more conservative than it’s next door neighbor, the London School of Economics, but this still seems to suggest a liberal, internationalist outlook.

However, here is the deciding factor: my B.A. is from an evangelical Christian university, and I had a second major in Biblical Literature in addition to the one in Political Science. This undoubtedly places me in the Republican caucus, based solely on education. Add to that my lack of Ivy League certification, and I’m conservative all the way. How nice that I figured that out without having to consider any important public policy issues!

For the purposes of this article, independent senators Bernie Sanders (Vermont) and Angus King (Maine) were considered to be Democrats, as they are members of that Senate caucus.