Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about educational pipelines to Capitol Hill

Paths from college to the Capitol for every DC-based congressional staffer.

What schools produce the most staffers on Capitol Hill? Do certain colleges or universities have established pipelines to the Hill? And how do the parties differ on from where they hire or what degrees they expect their DC-based staff own?

Until now, the answers to these questions have been based mostly on intuition and secondhand accounts. Thanks to LegiStorm’s database on Congressional staff and information from National Center for Education Statistics on college enrollment across the country, we can take the guesswork out of understanding the educational paths of Congresses’ behind the scenes workers.

As clear from the flight map above, every state in the Union has a hand in producing congressional staff in DC. But, as shown by the intensity of some of these trajectories, the path from college to the Capitol is much stronger for some schools than others.

Here are the standout patterns in the data:

1. DC schools dominate the path from undergrad to Congress

Let’s start with the basics: which universities send the most graduates to Capitol Hill? Considering only bachelors degrees, this flight map shows the Top 25 producers of congressional aides, with George Washington University predictably coming out on top. Also unsurprisingly, a host of D.C.-bubble colleges—American, Virginia, Georgetown, Maryland—make the top 10. If you want to work in Congress, being educated next door helps.

Overall, we see large state schools, including many from the South, and a smattering of private schools as those sending the most staff to DC. Also of note, only two schools west of UT-Austin, UC Berkeley and UCLA, make the Top 25.


2. Small, private schools produce the most staffers per capita

And before you start shouting, “But, most of these are schools with huge enrollments! We should expect them to dominate smaller schools in how many staffers they produce,” we already have you covered. The map above plots the top producing schools (again, bachelor’s degrees only), but this time adjusting for the number of students enrolled in the school. In other words, this map shows how many congressional staffers the school graduated per 1,000 enrolled students. Here we see small, private schools showing that they have strong pipelines to the Hill.

Coming out on top is Sewanee, the College of the South with 11.56 staffers per 1,000 students, followed by Washington and Lee (10.5) and Claremont McKenna (8.42). Notice all of the deep south state schools disappear using the per capita metric and we see an influx of northeast schools—including Harvard—pop up (presumably because the NE has a disproportionate number of small, private schools). Interestingly, the only two that show up in the top 25 in both number of graduates and on a per capita basis is American and the College of William and Mary.

Finally, based on anecdotal evidence, many of the schools that make the list of top per capita institutions have strong DC-based internship programs, which grant students the opportunity to live and intern in Washington, and ultimately lower the barrier to entry for ultimately becoming Hill staffers. (See Washington and Lee’s, Claremont McKenna’s, and Hamilton College’s DC internship program websites for examples).


3. DC schools and the Ivies dominate graduate degrees


Let’s play the same game, but now with graduate degrees. What stands out? First, DC schools win again, with the top 3 being smack dab in the bubble. This, of course, makes sense considering many staffers either choose these schools because of their proximity to Congress or they attend and earn degrees while already serving as staffers.

Ivy League schools are also clear winners with Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, and Penn each in the Top 25.

Losers? Nearly all graduate programs in the midwest, plains states, and the northwest.


4. Top producers of lawyers in Congress

And given that Washington is teeming with lawyers, we had to see which law schools boast the most congressional staff graduates. Georgetown wins, with American, GWU, Harvard, and Catholic rounding out the top five. No school west of Texas makes the cut, but we do see several southern law schools sending a good number of graduates to the Capitol. 


5. Parties hire from everywhere, but especially where they are popular

Moving on from focusing on the colleges, let’s turn to how parties and members vary in who and from where they hire. By splitting the flight paths of all staffer degrees by party, we are better able to spot any education pipeline differences between Republicans and Democrats.

A few things pop out. First, upon first glance, the parties seem to have remarkable overlap in the schools from which they hire. Democrats employ many graduates from schools in the South, Republicans from universities the Northeast. Second, for both parties DC is an epicenter of Hill-bound graduates.

But was does vary by party is the count of staffers from particular schools and regions (as indicated by the thickness of the respective lines). Perhaps predictably, both parties hire from schools within regions of greater support: Dems have more students from the northwest, California, and the northeast; GOPers hire distinctly more graduates from Southern institutions.


6. Republicans love in-state graduates


Another clear differential by party is the preference given to graduates from colleges within the member’s elected state: Republicans greatly value staffers graduating from in-state universities while fewer Democrats seem to make it a priority in who they hire.

In the House, of the 20 Representatives with the highest percent of staff from in-state schools 15 of them are Republican. Seven House offices, four GOP and three Democratic, have 100 percent of their DC staff as graduates from their respective states.

On the Senate side, 18 of the top 20 are GOP-held, with Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS) leading the pack with nearly 90% of her DC staff being graduates of Mississippi colleges. Since Senate staff sizes are large, this is a remarkably high number, suggesting that her office purposefully seeks out constituents to work within her DC office.

This finding implies that many members, and mostly those from the GOP, see a benefit in hiring graduates from home schools. Again, these are DC not district staff, signaling that members are purposeful in hiring those from their state. This could be the case for a variety of reasons.

For example, members may hire in-state graduates because they see their staff as an extension of themselves, preferring to bring folks with similar outlooks and experiences to their DC offices.

Hiring in-state graduates allows staffers to more easily connect with constituents on a personal level founded on shared backgrounds. For many lawmakers, even something as simple as having their voters hear the same accent on the phone is important as a form of homestyle extended even to the DC office. Alternatively, some lawmakers don’t want to be known for hiring out of staters at the expense of their own. Both are likely to be true for many offices.


7. From the Ivy League to Dem’s offices

Democrats, on the other hand, hire Ivy League graduates at much higher rates than their GOP counterparts. This is likely largely because Ivy League schools are housed in typically more liberal states, but the pattern is striking nonetheless. Ninety percent (18 of 20) of the House offices with the highest percent of staff with an Ivy League degree, and 15 of the top 20 in the Senate, are held by Democrats.

Two Representatives (Reps. Meeks and Finkenauer) have DC staffs in which 30 percent are graduates of the Ivies. Senator Elizabeth Warren, herself a noted former Harvard professor, leads the entire Congress with nearly 33 percent of her DC staff boasting an Ivy degree.


8. Who has the most educated offices on the Hill?

Finally, which DC member offices are the best educated? The above figure breaks down the top 20 offices in each chamber by party by the percent of staff who have earned any type of graduate degree. While there isn’t a clear party or chamber differential, the data confirm that congressional offices are highly educated workplaces, with an advanced degree often required for many mid-level positions (despite the pay not adequately reflecting the degree achievement, especially relative to the private sector).


A note about the education data

Staff education data used within this analysis reflects congressional staffers working in DC congressional offices as of April 30th, 2019. The LegiStorm educational background database provides degrees earned by each unique staffer, including the college/university and the type of degree awarded (Bachelor’s, Master’s, etc.). LegiStorm collects these data using a variety of sources including self-reported by the staffer, social media profiles such as LinkedIn, and even culling commencement programs of graduation ceremonies.

A few caveats are needed. First, this dataset of individual degrees cannot or should not be treated as exhaustive as some staffers likely have not reported all of their degrees. Second, there may even be instances of over-reporting (attended but not graduated, for example). Finally, there may be a small number of cases in which the campuses are not perfectly identified. Several universities have entire systems comprised of multiple campuses, and matching each degree to the awarding campus was not always explicit. We used context clues within the staffer’s profile in such cases to minimize misidentification.

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Topics: Congressional Staffing