Should US Presidents Be Required to Have College Degrees?

Washington, Lincoln and Nine Others Had No Degree

Washington, Lincoln and 9 Other US Presidents Had No College Degree. Scott Olson/Getty Images

From a purely legal standpoint, the answer is no. But if we sat down and re-wrote the U.S. Constitution today, should we add holding a college degree to the list of legal requirements to serve as President of the United States?

Since Harry Truman succeeded to the presidency after Franklin Roosevelt’s death in 1945, and was elected on his own in 1948 – 67 years ago – every U.S. president has held at least a college bachelor’s degree.

However, lack of a college degree did not prevent some pretty darn good presidents from doing pretty darn good jobs.

Presidents Without College Degrees

Only 11 of our 44 presidents did not graduate from college. They were: George Washington (1789-1797), Andrew Jackson (1829-1837), Martin Van Buren (1837-1841), William Henry Harrison (1841), Zachary Taylor (1849-1850), Millard Fillmore (1850-1853), Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865), Andrew Johnson (1865-1869), Grover Cleveland (1885-1889 and 1893-1897), William McKinley (1897-1901), and Harry Truman (1945-1953).

George Washington attended Virginia’s College of William & Mary, where he earned a surveyor’s license, but not a bachelor’s degree. Abraham Lincoln’s formal education ended with grade school. Yet they earned two of the four spots on Mount Rushmore.

Why So Few Early College Degrees?

Remember that in the early days of the United States, attending college was rare and getting a degree was even rarer.

According to the report 120 Years of American Education, from the U.S. Department of Education, college enrollment in the colonial America was largely limited to very well-to-do persons.

In fact, as late as 1869–70, when the government first began collecting education data, only 63,000 students were attending higher education institutions throughout the country, which amounted to only about 1% of the 18- to 24-year-old population at the time.

By 1870, only 9,000 college degrees had been awarded throughout the U.S., although the decennial census reported the total U.S. population had exceeded 38.5 million. Compare that with 1990, when over 1.5 million bachelors and higher degrees were awarded.

But Should  Modern Presidents Have College Degrees?

Even in the days when having a college degree was rare – and not then required to practice the law -- five of our first seven presidents had one. Indeed, holding a degree has long been viewed as one of the things setting the President of the United States apart from the general population.

On the other hand, President Woodrow Wilson, the only president to have earned a PhD (Princeton) once asked of Abraham Lincoln, “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?”

While Lincoln, with his grade-school education, is considered one of the greatest presidents, his predecessor, James Buchanan, who had a degree, is generally considered one of the least effective.

And to be sure, some prominent non-presidential Americans have been pretty successful without “the processes of one of our modern colleges,” including the late Steve Jobs of Apple, and Microsoft creator and world’s richest man Bill Gates.

A 2013 Gallup report, shows Americans’ view of the importance of earning a college degree has changed considerably over the years. According to Gallup, 70% of Americans today rate having a degree as being “very important,” compared to only 36% in the 1970s.

“Americans are certain - more so than in the past -- that a college education is very important in today’s society,” stated Gallup. “This is true even at a time when observers are focusing on the cost versus value equation of a college degree, and when new methods of learning such as online education may threaten the existence of many traditional colleges.”

It can also be argued that as U.S. presidents face more increasingly complex issues of national security, financial well-being, and global economic competition, the importance of their having a college degree has increased.

“Americans appear to recognize these realities,” noted Gallup. “The fact that 70% of Americans agree that a college education is very valuable makes it appear that, in many ways, a college degree has become synonymous with the American Dream.” 

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Longley, Robert. "Should US Presidents Be Required to Have College Degrees?" ThoughtCo, May. 17, 2016, Longley, Robert. (2016, May 17). Should US Presidents Be Required to Have College Degrees? Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "Should US Presidents Be Required to Have College Degrees?" ThoughtCo. (accessed November 19, 2017).