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No college degree? Maybe you can still be president


A point that my colleague Nate Cohn briefly mentioned in his article last week on Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin stirred a lively discussion among Upshot readers: Walker does not have a college degree. If he runs for president, he will be the first major candidate in some time without one.

Some readers thought that Walker’s decision to drop out of Marquette University showed a character flaw, like an unwillingness to work hard. Others argued that plenty of people succeed in life without a college degree, including Bill Gates, the Microsoft founder and the world’s richest man. (Other very wealthy tech company founders who dropped out of college include Steve Jobs of Apple, Larry Ellison of Oracle and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook.)

We wondered how common it was for a president or a serious contender to lack a college degree. The answer: Earlier in U.S. history it was quite common, including two of the four presidents on Mount Rushmore.

Eight of the 43 people who have served as president (counting Grover Cleveland only once) never attended college, according to the reference book "Facts About the Presidents": George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson and Cleveland.

Four others attended college but dropped out before finishing their degrees: James Monroe, William Henry Harrison, William McKinley and Harry Truman. (Harrison dropped out of two colleges, Hampden-Sydney College and the University of Pennsylvania, to embark on a military career. McKinley dropped out of Allegheny College, but many years later, after serving in the Army during the Civil War, he studied law at Albany Law School in New York.)

At the other end of the spectrum, two men were college presidents before they were U.S. presidents: Woodrow Wilson (of Princeton) and Dwight Eisenhower (of Columbia). William Howard Taft was dean of the University of Cincinnati Law School. Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia after leaving office, became its first rector (essentially its president), and was succeeded in that role by James Madison.

Truman has been the only president since 1901 without a bachelor’s degree, but two consecutive vice presidents in the 20th century also lacked one: Charles Curtis (who served under Herbert Hoover) and John Nance Garner (under Franklin Roosevelt). As was common in an earlier era — several 19th-century presidents also did this — Curtis and Garner became lawyers despite having little formal education, by studying in their spare time and taking the bar exam.

There were three unsuccessful 20th-century presidential nominees without degrees: James Cox, the Democrat who lost in 1920 to Warren Harding; Al Smith, defeated by Herbert Hoover in 1928; and Barry Goldwater, a University of Arizona dropout, who lost to Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

Perhaps the most recent significant presidential contender without a college degree was Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois, who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination in 1988. He dropped out of Dana College in Nebraska in 1948 to go into the newspaper business. Nevertheless, Simon looked like a scholar, with his trademark horn-rimmed glasses and bow ties, and became one after leaving the Senate, as the founder of a public policy institute at Southern Illinois University.

Where a degree came from has been, for some presidents, as important as the fact of having one. Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan both used their graduation from small liberal arts colleges (Whittier College and Eureka College) to bolster their image as ordinary people.

President Lyndon B. Johnson was particularly known for being insecure about his hardscrabble Texas upbringing and education. In a remark about a state dinner that occurred shortly after he became president, he described the company that evening as "four Rhodes scholars, three Harvard graduates, two from Yale, one from Princeton, and one from San Marcos State College!"

Alan Flippen, New York Times

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