Does the president need a college degree?

One governor's political ambitions has many asking

Does a president need a college degree?

Gov. Scott Walker (R) of Wisconsin lacks a post-secondary credential but is expected by many to run for president—bringing the question into sharp focus, Albert Hunt writes in BloombergView.

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Walker seems to be exploring a campaign for president. In recent polling, he is the conservative front-runner in the critical Iowa caucus. As a Washington outsider, with a record of implementing conservative policies in a solidly Democratic state, he is in many ways a strong candidate. Yet America has not had a president without a college degree since Harry Truman, and some say Walker's lack of education could be liability during a general election.

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Hunt notes that Americans "celebrate higher education." Moreover, voters are relatively educated—40% have a college degree. While Walker attended Marquette University, he never finished, dropping out in his fourth year to take a job.

Walker says his experience is not unusual. He told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last month that when he left college he had intended to go back, but that meeting his wife and starting a family made returning difficult. More importantly, Walker quips, he has "a master's degree in taking on the big-government special interests," which is "worth more than anything else that anybody can point to."

Lessons from history

Even so, Americans seem hesitant to elect people to federal office—let alone the presidency—if they lack a degree. Currently, every member of the Senate has some form of higher, and only 19 members of the House of Representatives lack a degree. (However, Republicans may be more willing to support these candidates; fifteen of the 19 members of the House without a college degree are members of the GOP, too.)

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), another likely Republican candidate for president, also lacks an undergraduate degree. He never finished his studies at Baylor University. However, he scored so well on his medical school exams that he was accepted to and graduated from the prestigious Duke University School of Medicine.

Americans recognize that a college degree is not a prerequisite for success and competency, Hunt writes. For instance, Apple's Steve Jobs was considered a world-class innovator and entrepreneur despite never having graduated from college.

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Overall, America has had 12 presidents without a degree. Woodrow Wilson, who was also president of Princeton University, once asked, "Would Lincoln have been a better instrument for the country's good if he had been put through the processes of one of our modern colleges?"

Ultimately, Lincoln was judged as one of America's greatest presidents despite his lack of formal education. In this, he roundly surpasses his more highly educated predecessor James Buchanan—thought by many to be one of the country's worst presidents (Hunt, BloombergView, 2/1; Bump, "The Fix," Washington Post, 1/8).

The takeaway: Scott Walker's run for president may be hampered by his lack of college degree, but history suggests that—in the right circumstances—presidents without a post-secondary education can be both successful and popular.

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