February 24, 2015

A college degree wasn’t always a ‘must’ for U.S. presidential candidates

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With Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker poised to run for the Republican presidential nomination next year, and performing well in early polls, one aspect of his resume is drawing closer attention: his lack of a college degree.

Not that Walker is unusual compared with the overall U.S. population: In 2013, fewer than a third (31.7%) of Americans ages 25 and older had a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to the Digest of Education Statistics. But Walker’s lack of a four-year degree (he dropped out of Marquette University in 1990) does make him, in the words of conservative commentator Rich Lowry, “an extreme outlier among top elected officials – and the journalists and consultants who surround them.”

As we first wrote back in May 2014, the last person to win the White House without having a college degree was Harry Truman, who studied briefly at a local business college and a law school but didn’t graduate from either. Of course, Truman was the incumbent in 1948 when he beat University of Michigan and Columbia Law grad Thomas Dewey, having succeeded Harvard man Franklin Roosevelt more than three years earlier.

Barry Goldwater in 1964 was the most recent major-party nominee to have not graduated from college: He attended the University of Arizona for one year before leaving in 1929 to work in his family’s department-store business. Al Smith, the unsuccessful Democratic nominee in 1928, was the last major-party nominee to never attend college at all (or high school, for that matter).

But since the election of George H.W. Bush (Yale ’48) in 1988, every president has had an undergraduate or graduate degree, or both, from an Ivy League school. The 2012 election, in fact, was an all-Harvard affair, pitting Barack Obama (J.D., class of 1991, following his bachelor’s degree from Columbia) against Mitt Romney (J.D./MBA, class of 1975, with his bachelor’s from Brigham Young University).

For much of this country’s history, it wasn’t unusual for presidents and presidential candidates to have not attended college. College, after all, was largely a preserve of the elite until well into the 20th century: In 1910, according to the Digest of Education Statistics, just 2.7% of Americans ages 25 and older had attained a bachelor’s degree or higher, a figure that had zoomed all the way up to 6.2% by 1950.

Eleven of the 24 men who served as president between 1789 and 1901 weren’t college graduates (though three of those attended some college without earning a degree). In the elections of 1836, 1840, 1848 and 1860, two non-graduates faced each other; in the multi-cornered races of 1824 and 1856, two of the losing candidates were degree-less. And in 1864 neither Abraham Lincoln nor his running mate, Andrew Johnson, had gone to college.

Some people have questioned whether college degrees are always worth the time and expense to earn them. Since 2010, for example, billionaire investor Peter Thiel has given 82 young people $100,000 apiece over two years to leave college and pursue their own research projects and startup dreams – with, so far, mixed results. But overall, as a 2014 Pew Research Center report titled “The Rising Cost of Not Going to College” found, young college graduates outperform their less-educated peers on “virtually every measure of economic well-being and career attainment.”

Topics: Educational Attainment, Elections and Campaigns

  1. Photo of Drew DeSilver

    is a senior writer at Pew Research Center.

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8 Comments

  1. Pat Ross3 months ago

    Much of the Trump weakness may be due to his not having attended law school, as so many other Presidents have lately. Despite the publc’s dislike of lawyers as greedy and manipulative, having attended law school is quickly becoming a prerequisite for becoming President – which greatly narrows the field for potential leadership.

    Given America’s success in the past, it might be worthy to consider whether a law degress is a necessity for government leadership at higher echelons. Has America been highjacked by lawyers?

    Reply
  2. Anne G8 months ago

    I feel the president of the USA should value education enough to have gotten a degree. I’m sure Walker would not go to a dentist, doctor or lawyer without a degree. However, when you are so egotistical that you think you know more than everyone, you will deny that one of the most powerful positions in the world should be held by a degreed person..

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  3. Alan Carmignani1 year ago

    I believe a degree is important today, but only because people are reluctant to let you prove yourself without one. There are a lot of highly intelligent people who simply never got the chance to attend college for various reasons. I have found that someone who is book smart from college often overlook better options.

    Reply
  4. Jim G1 year ago

    After reading the remarks of Frese and Brown, it is apparent they were educated by professors who read from a book, written by someone who read from a book, written by someone who read from a book, ad infinitum. I’ll go further, and hazard that neither have been to a NEA annual meeting. If they think the NEA has education as its endeavor, they’ve got a lot to learn. When exposed to real life experience, it isn’t always the college graduate who can best solve the problems at hand.

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  5. G. Saul1 year ago

    College degrees can “open doors” even in later years showing that indeed you persevered the four or five years working to pay your way through it all as I had to.

    Many companies will train you to perform for their job tasks and foot the bill. You will
    endure, thus a good investment by that company.

    Now people will get an education to enable them to have better earning power. Once they feel they are ready ( Bill Gates) left school early and proceeded with his “work” because he thought himself ready.

    Finishing your senior year, in many cases, is simply mop-up work.

    Scott Walker went into politics (which was his calling) and no certain level of higher
    education is required to be an effective politician in any office.

    NOTE: the current president has a Harvard degree with no common sense nor practical
    experience and is a functional mess.

    GWS.

    Reply
  6. Charles Wellman1 year ago

    thats one way to keep educrats in charge….

    Reply
  7. Margaret Satterwhite Brown1 year ago

    Scott Walker has no respect for education or teachers, and that is a problem. Right to work states squeeze out the middle class and marginalize academic institutions by awarding contracts to businesses who have no business in the field of education. They are siphoning tax dollars for personal gain and political favors. Ask yourself, “Who owns Scott Walker?” Kochs? Waltons? Pearson?#reignoferror #dianeravitch

    Reply
  8. Joel Frese1 year ago

    This is no way in Hades that I’m going to vote for a candidate who couldn’t be bothered with his education, or who was kicked out of college. During the last midterm elections, Americans voted for a wave of Republicans which unleashed the herd of anti education lawmakers onto the nation. They are already hard at work to lower the standards for us all in order to set the nation back 100 years. No way we’re going to lose this progress.

    Reply