Under-educated State Legislatures? (Part II): The Public-Private Divide in Higher Education

By Lisa R. Pruitt

I wrote a post last month about data recently released by the Chronicle of Higher Education regarding education levels of state legislators.  That post considered whether the data shed any light on recent funding cuts to higher education.  The short answer:  Not really, though one thing is clear.  Being a graduate of a public university (or  having attended one) does not guarantee great support for public institutions of higher education.  This post will discuss the public-private divide in how and where state legislators were educated and speculate o the divide’s consequences.

While about 75% of state legislators have college degrees, the majority of those—nearly 80%–have attended public universities.  (Many of those also attended private universities, though data on the institutions where the legislators earned their degrees is not detailed).  One of the Chronicle stories about the data summarizes:

“Like most American students, the vast majority of state legislators went to public colleges.  And most of them stayed close to home.  In Louisiana, four out of five legislators never went to college outside the state.”

As the quote above suggests, the percentage of state legislators who attended private colleges varies significantly from state to state.  As a general rule, legislators in the northeast were more likely to attend private colleges than were legislators in other regions.  Here are the findings by state, which show that Massachusetts and Rhode Island have the lowest percentage of state lawmakers who attended a public university or college, while Mississippi, Alabama, and North Dakota  have the highest percentages of those who attended a public university or college*:      


STATE Public % Private % Other %
Alabama 71 33 6
Alaska 64 28 8
Arizona 64 25 11
Arkansas 71 26 3
California 59 36 6
Colorado 59 34 7
Connecticut 45 47 8
Delaware 56 32 12
Florida 61 34 5
Georgia 60 29 11
Hawaii 61 27 12
Idaho 59 35 6
Illinois 52 43 4
Indiana 63 26 9
Iowa 59 34 7
Kansas 73 21 6
Kentucky 72 24 4
Louisiana 73 22 5
Maine 55 37 8
Maryland 64 32 4
Massachusetts 36 59 5
Michigan 66 28 6
Minnesota 52 41 7
Mississippi 79 18 4
Missouri 61 33 5
Montana 70 21 9
Nebraska 65 33 2
Nevada 67 27 6
New Hampshire 45 41 14
New Jersey 41 52 7
New Mexico 70 18 12
New York 44 50 6
North Carolina 62 33 4
North Dakota 79 12 9
Ohio 61 37 2
Oklahoma 72 24 4
Oregon 61 37 2
Pennsylvania 47 46 7
Rhode Island 39 58 3
South Carolina 62 32 6
South Dakota 68 25 7
Tennessee 64 30 6
Texas 64 31 4
Utah 54 39 7
Vermont 46 46 8
Virginia 59 35 6
Washington 63 31 6
West Virginia 64 30 6
Wisconsin 72 25 3
Wyoming 77 16 7
All States 61 33 6

Of course, it is difficult to say exactly what consequences—in terms of political ideology or otherwise—flow from having attended a public university.  (More telling might be whether a legislator holds a degree from a public university—not only that s/he attended one.)  I suspect the consequences of attending a public institution vary from state to state, depending on state norms and what private universities are present in a state or region, as well as the relative prestige of public and private institutions in a given state.  Consider, for example, the dominating presence of Brigham Young University in Utah or the presence of very elite but nominally public state universities in Michigan and Virginia.

A state university experience may be consistent with practicality and make a legislator less likely to be an ideologue.  Products of public higher education might experience (and exhibit) less a sense of superiority toward their less educated counterparts, as well as toward their less educated constituents.  (Speaking of sense of superiority—which is often associated with eliteness—the Chronicle anecdotally notes the much greater presence of Yale graduates in the U.S. Congress than in state houses:  1 in 30 members of the U.S. House and Senate, compared to 1 in 189 among state lawmakers).

I wonder, too, what effect the commonality of time spent at a state’s flagship university has on collegiality among state lawmakers.  If many legislators in a given state house are rooting for the same college sports team, does that fuel an ol’ boy (and girl) network that excludes some?  If so, is that always a bad thing, or might it sometimes be a good thing?  That is, might it foster community and collaboration—and keep extreme partisanship at bay?  In this regard, we might consider Minnesota and Wisconsin, with 52% and 72% public university-educated lawmakers, respectively.  While they are near opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of percentage who attended public universities or colleges, both states have recently been in the grip of political deadlock.

In addition, a legislator who attended (and perhaps graduated from) a state school may be more likely than one who attended (and perhaps graduated from) a private school to be a class migrant—that is, to represent the first generation in his/her family to get a college degree.  For cohorts who graduated from high school in the 1970s and 1980s, first-generation college students were significantly more likely to attend a public university than a private one.  Data about more recent cohorts of college-aged students indicates that the gap between public and private tertiary institutions is closing among first-generation students, coming more into line with the public-private spread for college students whose parents attended (and/or graduated from) college.  The closure of the gap is particularly evident among first-generation students attending four-year institutions, although first-generation students are still far more likely to attend 2-year colleges.

Assuming for a moment that the higher percentage of legislators with public institution degrees is an indicator of the presence of class migrants, I would expect that to be a good thing. Class migrants may be less likely to take the American dream for granted.  That is, they may realize that they have achieved a college education and thereby transcended class boundaries because of easier and less expensive access to public education.  On the other hand, a higher percentage of class migrants could make for more conservative leanings if the class migrants take undue personal credit for their migration and fail to see how public institutions and structures—including higher education subsidized by public coffers—have facilitated it.

Another thing striking about where state legislators were educated is that—at least outside the northeast—the vast majority were educated within the states where they serve.  This is a particularly marked trend in the South.  Such a lack of geographic mobility suggests provincialism, which seems to me a great pity because it may inhibit state legislators from thinking outside the box—beyond “the way we’ve always done it”—about challenges.  This is a topic I shall return to in my next post in this series, which will compare the education credentials of state lawmakers in states popularly thought of as rural with those from more urbanized states.

*The percentages shown in this table were calculated by adding, for each state, the number of legislators who attended a public institution with the number who attended a private institution and with “other” (which the Chronicle does not define), and turning each of those categories into a percentage of the total for that state.  Showing these as a percentage is somewhat misleading because many lawmakers attended both public and private institutions and are therefore shown in both percentages.  These percentages also are not perfectly consistent with those in the Chronicle’s charts, which do not compare public to private.  The Chronicle’s percentages were presumably calculated by dividing the total number of legislators who attended a public institution by the total number who attended any tertiary education institution in the given state.

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