Liberal Education

Three Traditions of Democracy in Relation to American Higher Education

What is the best brand of car? Of course, the answer depends on whom you ask. For example, one person might value a sturdy SUV with all-wheel drive, another a fast sports car, and yet another a roomy minivan with enough seating to accommodate a large family. Why, if we can recognize the foolhardiness of overall ratings of cars (or computers or mobile phones), do we put up with overall ratings of colleges and universities? What qualifies as “best” depends on what the individual consumer wants, in institutions of higher learning as in anything else.

In this essay, I identify three distinct traditions of democracy in relation to American higher education and suggest that the type of college or university one values most depends, at least in part, upon which of these traditions one espouses.

The Jacksonian tradition: Education—who cares?

The first tradition derives from Andrew Jackson’s belief that almost anyone can do any job if he or she works hard enough at it. In particular, the leaders of society need not be especially well educated in order to be successful. Jackson’s views may or may not have made sense in his own times. It is hard to know for sure, in retrospect, just how much in the way of specialized knowledge and skill was important in those days. But it is fairly clear today that this tradition is an antiquated one. Too many jobs now require high levels of knowledge and skill for the unschooled to be confident of meeting even their own goals for success. There certainly are initial jobs for those without a college education. But getting the second, third, and fourth jobs—and even retaining the first—can prove challenging for those without at least some level of higher education.

There are some who are willing to pay select students to drop out of college. The entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel, for example, founded the Thiel Fellowship to award large grants to exceptionally able young people willing to skip college. But this movement has not caught on, and the Thiel Fellows are hardly representative of potential college-goers. For the typical student, trusting in the Jacksonian model would be a serious mistake. Society, at least in the United States, has largely abandoned this model.

The Hamiltonian tradition: Educating the elite for leadership

The Hamiltonian tradition is the one that has been adopted most widely in the United States. It is based on Alexander Hamilton’s notion that a society should identify its elite members and then put them into positions of leadership. In Hamilton’s day, the elite consisted of the upper social and economic classes. This was also true for much of the history of the United States, until the demands for high grades and high scores in standardized testing came to dominate college admissions in the 1960s. These high grades and high scores are the primary credentials required for entrance to Hamiltonian institutions—those often at or near the top of media ratings—and they are actually the credentials most likely to lead youngsters today into the upper social and economic classes.

The Hamiltonian tradition makes sense to the extent that one believes that a student’s potential as an active citizen and ethical leader largely can be predicted by limited assessments of performance in the years of senior high school. In practice, this tradition is compromised by the inability of many students to afford an education at Hamiltonian institutions, even with scholarship aid. It is further compromised by legacy admissions (i.e., the applicant’s parents are alumni of the school to which he or she is applying) and development admissions (i.e., the applicant’s parents are viewed as potential large donors, but only if the applicant is accepted). And the measures used to determine admission are often narrow and limited.

The Jeffersonian tradition: Higher education for the masses

The Jeffersonian tradition is, in a sense, a blend of the other two traditions. Like the Jacksonian tradition, it holds that almost anyone can become, at some level, an ethical leader in society. But like the Hamiltonian tradition, it avers that the individual first must be well educated in order to be socialized into such a role. Education, then, provides the key to ethical leadership, but high school credentials, such as grades and standardized test scores, are unlikely to tell us who will become an ethical leader. The reason is that while successful leadership requires the knowledge and analytical skill measured by standardized tests, it also requires, among other things, ethical behavior, a strong work ethic, creativity and a vision of the future, common sense, a sense of responsibility, a willingness to subordinate personal gain to the gain of the larger community, skill in teamwork, resilience in the face of failure, social and emotional intelligence, and, as in the movie by the same name, “true grit.”

Standardized tests and even high school grades measure only a tiny sliver of the skills needed for successful leadership. And there is the risk that someone who is very successful on such tests may actually come to over-rely on his or her IQ at the expense of other skills required for leadership, to the detriment of his or her overall leadership skills. Such overreliance is, in part, a product of our society’s great emphasis—and, I believe, overemphasis—on the purported role of memory and analytical skill in career success.

The nature of abilities

A college or university that is true to a Jeffersonian mission will emphasize access for as many students as possible, so long as those students can succeed at the institution and eventually get a credible degree. A college or university in the Hamiltonian tradition will be proud of its selectivity, which in essence amounts to accepting the smallest possible proportion of applicants (or rejecting the largest possible proportion). This means that, for institutions in the Jeffersonian tradition, there is no “free ride” with regard to retention and graduation rates. Because students with relatively limited academic backgrounds will be accepted, these institutions have to work very hard to retain them. Colleges and universities in the Hamiltonian tradition, which are more selective, generally find retention less challenging because their students enter with good, and often superb, academic acculturation.

Many rating systems use selectivity as one basis for evaluating the quality of a college or university, but this basis does not translate well to Jeffersonian institutions. The reason is that, in the Jeffersonian tradition, abilities are viewed as modifiable rather than fixed. One can be at any level of intelligence and become smarter. There is strong evidence in the psychological literature to support this claim.1 Thus, admissions officers should not take scores on standardized admissions tests too seriously; these scores represent only where a student is now, with respect to those skills measured by the tests, not where the student could be after four years of instruction. Increased years of schooling raise IQs.2 Hence, a Jeffersonian institution that is true to its mission will look at college instruction as an opportunity for students to grow intellectually and reach new heights. Indeed, research on what is sometimes called “dynamic assessment” has shown that conventional “static” standardized tests only show the level of skill reached, not the level students are capable of attaining.3

The modifiability of human ability is demonstrated by the so-called “Flynn effect,” which refers to the fact that during the twentieth century, all around the world, the average IQ rose by three points each decade, or thirty points over the century. This astonishing increase means, for instance, that a test raw score (number correct) yielding an IQ of 100 in the year 2000 would have come in at roughly 130 in the year 1900 or that an IQ of 70 in the year 2000 would have come in at 100 in the year 1900. In either case, IQs rose roughly 30 points in a century. The performance of a person who looked quite smart in 1900 would no longer look so smart at all in 2000 because the average level of performance rose so much. To get an idea of how astonishing this increase is, consider that an IQ of 130 is in roughly the ninety-eighth percentile, an IQ of 100 is in the fiftieth percentile, and an IQ of 70 is in the second percentile. (“Percentile” is defined as the number of people out of one hundred who score below the given IQ score.)

The reason that the average IQ has remained at 100 is simply that IQ tests have been re-standardized and re-normed every so often in order to keep the average for a given time period at 100. Clearly, the environment somehow has modified at least some aspects of human cognitive ability. The result cannot be attributed to genetics. Genetic mutations just do not create change of this magnitude and breadth in a hundred years.

Nonetheless, the Hamiltonian tradition views ability as more or less fixed. From this perspective, one can identify elite talent at a relatively early age. Thus, it makes sense to use standardized tests, at the high school level or even earlier, to identify those students with the greatest potential for success. Moreover, research has shown that standardized tests display moderate correlations with both academic success and job success.4 Therefore, according to the Hamiltonian tradition, it makes sense to identify early those who will succeed and then to cultivate their talent in order to maximize it for elite positions in leadership.

Broad vs. narrow

As noted above, standardized tests measure a relatively narrow range of skills, especially memory and analytical skill. But active citizenship and ethical leadership require a much broader range of skills.

In the Jeffersonian tradition, abilities are seen as very broad, and so conventional standardized tests are inadequate to measure potential for active citizenship and ethical leadership, even at a first pass. In the extreme, there are some “brilliant” leaders who have been total disasters when it comes to ethical leadership. In the Hamiltonian tradition, by contrast, the abilities that serve as the focus of the funnel for positions of ethical leadership are narrower. Indeed, grades and standardized test scores count to a very great extent in many undergraduate, graduate, and professional school admissions programs.

But if a Jeffersonian institution is true to its mission, it will need to emphasize the assessment of creative, practical, and wisdom-based thinking, something I did in undergraduate admissions with my colleagues at both Tufts University and Oklahoma State University. We found that assessing this broader range of skills actually enhanced our ability to predict not only academic performance, but also extracurricular and, in particular, leadership performance. Broadened skill assessment also reduces the magnitude of ethnic-group differences and sends the message that the institution views the applicant as a whole person, not just as a test score and a high school grade point average.

Criteria for success

The criteria for success in Jeffersonian institutions are somewhat different from those in Hamiltonian institutions, although there is certainly some overlap. At Jeffersonian institutions, retention rates and six-year graduation rates take on special meaning because so many students enter with less than solid academic backgrounds. The quantifiable contribution of the institution to the local economy also matters greatly, as does the willingness of local businesses to invest in research and development done at the institution.

The number of employers who come to campus in order to recruit students is important to Jeffersonian institutions, and even more important is the number of employers who come for return visits. Such institutions also care about the percentage of graduates who are employed in jobs that use their college-related skills and the percentage of them who succeed, or at least are retained, in these jobs. These emphases derive from the fact that Jeffersonian institutions are less selective in whom they accept, according to traditional criteria, and, therefore, have to show that they produce students who can succeed in the job market, despite their more diverse credentials at admission.

To educate students for ethical leadership, an institution needs to have dedicated programs that infuse ethical-leadership case studies and training into already existing courses and that, perhaps, have a capstone experience in which students are required to show how they have integrated what they have learned about ethical leadership in their courses and student-affairs activities. In the Jeffersonian tradition, there is no clear line dividing academics from student affairs: both are part of a holistic educational design.

So, what do Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian institutions look like in practice?

Institution H

A fairly large, prestigious, private institution in the Northeast, Institution H embodies the Hamiltonian ideal. It is very highly selective in admissions, with most scoring between 1350 and 1550 on the combined verbal and math SATs. The overwhelming majority of students who enter were in the top 10 percent of their high school classes, many in the top 5 percent. The admissions office takes into account many factors in addition to standardized test scores and grades, including letters of recommendation from teachers and guidance counselors, records of extracurricular activities, and application essays. But these additional factors are largely supplementary. Except in unusual cases (such as athletes, legacy applicants with close relatives who attended the institution, and students with highly atypical backgrounds), the students admitted excelled academically while in high school. Most students come from upper-middle-class and upperclass backgrounds, with a sprinkling of students from working-class backgrounds, most of whom receive significant scholarship aid. Most challenging is the matriculation of middle middle-class students, who typically qualify for aid but not necessarily enough to enable them to attend.

The instruction at Institution H is geared toward academically high-performing students. There are virtually no true remedial courses. Professors are somewhat at a loss as to how to deal with students who are not academically adept. Although there is an academic counseling center, it is equipped to handle only a small number of students and, for the most part, those with certified learning disabilities or attentional disorders. Although there are many extracurricular activities offered at the university, the stress tends to be on academics.

Institution J

A large public institution in the Midwest, Institution J embodies the Jeffersonian ideal. It accepts students largely on the basis of ACT scores and high school GPAs. However, the bar for admission by these standards is relatively low; the overwhelmingly large majority of applicants are accepted, and applicants who do not reach the bar can still gain access through alternative routes—by taking supplementary courses at a community college, for example, or by showing personal qualities that the admissions staff believe indicate that the student could succeed at the institution.

The instruction at Institution J is geared toward the typical college student, with extensive opportunities for remediation and extra help provided by a student success center. The extra help is available to all students, and it is utilized by almost one-third of them at some point in their college careers, mostly in the first year. Many students at this institution place a lot of emphasis on extracurricular activities, such as athletics, Greek life, and participation in various student organizations. There is a strong honors program for academically successful students.

Comparison between Institutions H and J

It might seem that the relative selectivity of admissions accounts for the main difference between Institutions H and J—and, indeed, that is a major difference. But I would argue that the difference in institutional beliefs regarding the modifiability and breadth of abilities is more significant. At Institution H, student ability is viewed as largely fixed, and high school grades and scores on standardized tests are accepted as good indicators of ability. At Institution J, by contrast, education is understood to modify student abilities, and a broader view of abilities themselves leads to consideration of more than just test scores and grades. Institution J emphasizes access, in part because of the belief that it is difficult to predict whether high school seniors will succeed in the future in the sense of making a positive, meaningful, and enduring difference in the world.

Simply by virtue of its high level of selectivity and the related selection criteria, Institution H makes it clear to students, parents, and society what it stands for, namely, identifying at the high school level those who will be the future elite of society. Institution J does not place such a strong bet, instead giving students with weaker academic records a chance to prove themselves.

Not all unselective institutions are necessarily Jeffersonian. A college or university that accepts those who aspire to elite schools but cannot gain access to them, for example, may not be Jeffersonian at all. Rather, in relation to more elite colleges and universities, such an institution may view itself as a repository for weaker students with weaker prospects. Such a college or university would be more accurately described as an aspiring Hamiltonian institution or a Hamiltonian “also-ran.”


The Hamiltonian tradition dominates conceptions of “quality” higher education in the United States today. But ethical servant leadership is in no great supply in our society. As a result, there is almost certainly an important place for the Jeffersonian tradition as well. This latter tradition is not well appreciated or measured by such ratings as one finds in the media or even in scholarly publications. Perhaps that needs to change. And we need to remember that the most valuable rankings for colleges and universities, like those for cars, depend not on what the media value, but on what each of us values in educating our citizenry and our children.


1. See C. T. Ramey and S. L. Ramey, “Early Learning and School Readiness: Can Early Intervention Make a Difference?,” in The Crisis in Youth Mental Health: Early Intervention Programs and Policies, ed. N. F. Watt, C. C. Ayoub, R. H. Bradley, J. E. Puma, and W. A. Lebeouf (Westport, CT: Praeger Press, 2006), 291–317; S. M. Jaeggi, M. Burschkuel, J. Jonides, and W. J. Perrig, “Improving Fluid Intelligence with Training in Working Memory,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the University State of America 105, no. 19 (2008): 6829–33; R. S. Nickerson, D. N. Perkins, and E. E. Smith, The Teaching of Thinking (Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1985); and R. J. Sternberg, “Raising the Achievement of All Students: Teaching for Successful Intelligence, Educational Psychology Review 14, no. 4 (2002): 383–93.

2. See S. J. Ceci, “How Much Does Schooling Influence General Intelligence and Its Cognitive Components? A Reassessment of the Evidence” Developmental Psychology 27, no. 5 (1991): 703–22.

3. See R. J. Sternberg and E. L. Grigorenko, Dynamic Testing (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

4. See F. L. Schmidt and J. E. Hunter, “The Validity and Utility of Selection Methods in Personnel Psychology: Practical and Theoretical Implications of 85 Years of Research Findings,” Psychological Bulletin 124, no. 2 (1998): 262–74; L. S. Gottfredson, “Where and Why g Matters: Not a Mystery,” Human Performance 15, no. 1/2 (2002): 25–46; H. J. Kell, D. Lubinski, and C. P. Benbow, “Who Rises to the Top? Early Indicators,” Psychological Science 24, no. 5 (2013): 648–59; and I. J. Deary, L. J. Whalley, and J. M. Starr, A Lifetime of Intelligence (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2009).

Robert J. Sternberg is professor of human development at Cornell University.

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