No Degree? Oh No!
By John D. Turner
19 Feb 2015

I had intended to write this article a week ago – but life intruded and I didn’t get the time. Better late than never, I guess; besides, the issue has not gone away, and my opinion has not changed, so here goes.

I was on my way home from work, listening to a talk show on the radio. The subject was Scott Walker, the currently leading contender for the Republican nomination for president in 2016. The topic was Mr. Walker’s lack of a college degree, and whether or not that was a “deal breaker” when it came to his run for president.

I must confess, this was the first I had heard of his lack; I really hadn’t given much thought as to whether or not he had a degree or, if so, what it might be in. The caller, however, was incensed that he would even consider running without one and insisted that he would never vote for a person without a college degree for president. When asked why, he replied that he has a college degree, and he expects that anyone running for president would be at least as smart as he is. Mr. Walker doesn’t have one, ergo, he is “unintelligent.”

Indeed, Howard Dean echoed that sentiment, asking, “The issue is, how well educated is this guy? I worry about people being president of the United States not knowing much about the world and not knowing much about science.”

Because if you don’t have a college degree, you must be living under a rock somewhere, wearing a wife-beater, chugging a six-pack of Lone Star, and watching the WWF or NASCAR; and of course, believe that the world is flat. It goes without saying that you are an anthropomorphic global climate change denier, which for the left is like denying that God exists (except that many on the left don’t believe God exists.)

Well, what of it? Is it possible to know anything about science and the world around us without an official stamp from an institute of higher learning, preferably one of the Ivy League schools? Does not having a degree make one “unintelligent” and unable to function in “sophisticated” circles?

And it must be from one of the “acceptable” schools. Remember the ridicule that Sarah Palin endured because her degree was from the University of Idaho; never mind that her bachelor’s degree was in communications with an emphasis in journalism, the media ate her alive anyway. What a hick!

But at least she had a degree. Mr. Walker went to college, but dropped out in his senior year, with approximately one year’s worth of credits to go. Why? Well, it seems he got a good job, and intended to go back and finish, but life intruded; he got married and had children. I know how that goes. I probably wouldn’t have my master’s degree now had not the Air Force paid me and made it my job to get one. I started my master’s soon after graduation, but hey; I had a good job, got married, and started a family. Life intruded.

So why must a candidate for president have a college degree anyway? What does it tell us if he or she does, and what does it tell us if he or she does not?

The caller I referenced above said that it shows “intelligence”, as did, indirectly, Mr. Dean. The latter was a medical doctor before entering politics, so he has lots of education. Getting through medical school indicates a certain level of intelligence, and I applaud him in that endeavor. But does that automatically make him a “better” candidate for president?

Just because a person has a piece of paper from a college or university does not mean that they are necessarily knowledgeable or intelligent. Bill Gates dropped out of college. So did Steve Jobs. Are they both then, failures? Are they both then, unintelligent? I doubt that, if Bill Gates ran for president, I would support his candidacy as he would likely run on the Democratic ticket. But I would hazard a guess that his experience running Microsoft would “qualify” him to be president, degree or not. As an international company, he would have to be “aware of the world around him,” and as the CEO of a tech company, one would have to assume that he is not a Luddite.

In fact, over the years, the United States has had quite a number of individuals who have been highly successful without a framed diploma hanging on the wall in their office; some never even completed high school! Granted, some of these were earlier in the history of the country, but many are contemporaries. Here is a list of the top 100 Entrepreneurs who succeeded without a college degree. Some of these were presidents of the United States.

Here is a list of eight billionaires who never completed college. The list includes Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Why did they drop out? Some joined the Army and then got a job; life intruded. Some dropped out to pursue their business venture, and never went back. If I were a billionaire, would I go back to college to pick up a BS/BA degree? Why? My time would be much more valuable pursuing my business than picking up what would then arguably be a rather worthless piece of paper. Would I vote for any of these men for president? One isn’t even old enough to meet the age qualification specified in the Constitution! Certainly my decision would be based on factors other than whether or not they had a college degree.

And if you really want to see a lengthy list, check “The College Dropouts Hall of Fame” website.

Many, who graduate from college these days, end up unemployed or employed in a job that has nothing to do with their degree. Is that degree then of any value? It certainly cost enough to acquire! What is the point of obtaining a degree just to say you have one? Most of us are not wealthy enough to be able to afford to do so, even though many end up doing so anyway. Spending a hundred thousand dollars to earn a degree that ultimately pays nothing is not, to my way of thinking, a good investment of time and money.

In some careers, a college degree is a must. You probably wouldn’t go to a doctor who hadn’t graduated from medical school – although there is no reason why the requisite knowledge could not be gained in some other manner. When you walk into the doctor’s office, you expect to see at least one sheepskin hanging on the wall with his or her name on it.

In other careers, a degree is highly desirable, but not necessarily required. What that BS/BA/BSE, et al, is really good for is getting you some basic knowledge required for the job, and getting your foot in the door. Many employers won’t even look at you in some jobs without one.

One such career is Architecture, which was a five year degree program when I went to Arizona State. Would you really want someone designing your house that had not completed architecture school? It seems reasonable that you would not – unless you wanted to own a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, who was recognized in 1991 by the American Institute of Architects as “the greatest American architect of all time.”[1]. Mr. Wright never completed college, taking classes part-time for two semesters at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1886 and leaving the college in 1887 without a degree. In fact, there is no record that he ever completed high school! Not everyone is a Frank Lloyd Wright of course, but that’s not the point. The point is that a degree does not necessarily determine one’s ability to do a job.

I have a friend who is a senior engineer at the Toyota plant here in San Antonio. He doesn’t have a degree in engineering – but he is darned good at what he does, something that his bosses recognize; enough so that they put him in charge of engineers who have degrees.

Should he perhaps seek to pursue the piece of paper to “qualify” his self in the eyes of some for a position he already holds? Why?

Nor does possession of a degree, however technical, ensure that one is competent to hold a particular position, including President of the United States. Jimmy Carter, our 39th president is frequently cited as having a degree in Nuclear Engineering (he didn’t), but he did attend Georgia Southwestern College transferred to Georgia Institute of technology, ultimately graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy, graduating 59th out of a class of 820 – a more than respectable standing, with a general Bachelor of Science degree. He later attended, but did not complete, the Navy nuclear power school as life intruded, and took postgraduate courses in the Nuclear Physics Course Program at Union College, but again, did not complete the program. He is also arguably one of the worst presidents we have had in recent history.

Assuming that one feels the need for a president to have a college degree, what sort of degree should he or she have; or is any degree more “qualifying” than none at all?

Would a candidate with a degree in gender studies then be preferable to Mr. Walker in that at least the candidate has a degree? How about Phys Ed? And of what possible use would either be, in and of itself, to “qualify” a person to be president of the United States? Does it provide that measuring stick that Howard Dean suggested was so vitally important, knowing about the science and the world?”

I have an idea – let’s ask the candidate questions – you know, like in a debate, and see what his answers are. Perhaps then we can decide on our own whether or not he actually “knows something about science and the world.”

The only requirements to be president stated in the Constitution (Article II, Section 1) is that the candidate must be a “natural born citizen” (whatever that means these days), and must be at least 35 years old and have been a resident of the United States for at least 14 years. That’s it. No mention of education, or degrees, or anything else.

And it isn’t as if there weren’t highly educated people involved in writing the Constitution or available to be president. John Adams graduated from Harvard; Thomas Jefferson, William and Mary; James Madison (also known as the “Father of the Constitution”), Princeton; James Monroe, also William and Mary. John Quincy Adams started at Leiden University and transferred to Harvard, where he graduated. Of the first six presidents, only our first president, George Washington, lacked a college degree.

The bottom line is, while many of the founders had college degrees, they didn’t see that as a necessary qualifier for the presidency. Only in recent history has having a college degree, any degree, become a fetish; at least among the nation’s elites. Only 28.8 percent of Americans over the age of 25 even have a bachelor’s degree or higher, though many more, like Scott Walker, have at least some college. Should only 28.8 percent of all Americans be the pool from which our presidents are drawn from? Is ours still a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, or is it to become a government of the elites, by the elites, and for the elites?

Some say that today’s colleges and universities are where you send your kids to become liberals. By this definition, I can understand why those on the left would like to insist that presidential candidates have a college degree – and at an Ivy League school if at all possible. (After all, who knows what they are teaching out there in the hinterlands.) As a person on the right, it seems to me that perhaps someone who hasn’t gone through the indoctrination mill might actually be a good choice; although Scott Walker did complete about 3/4ths of his degree.

Should one’s actual accomplishments count for nothing? What about someone who has a degree (or multiple degrees) but is an abject failure at whatever they do; do they stand higher as a candidate than someone like Scott Walker, who attended college but did not complete and has demonstrated his ability in the real world?

By this criterion, George Washington couldn’t get elected president in this day and age. Nor could Harry Truman, the last elected president without a degree, who may not have been the best president we ever had, but certainly wasn’t the worst. In fact various presidential rankings show him in the first quartile of American presidents (along with George Washington).

A president isn’t really expected to be knowledgeable about everything (which would be impossible anyway) – that’s why presidents have advisors. A president is supposed to have strategic vision, be able to select good advisors, and then weigh their advice and make decisions. A good president must be a capable leader. He or she needs to be able to negotiate with the congress to achiever desired outcomes, build coalitions with other nations, reach compromises when necessary, stand firm when that is called for, and communicate with the people. There are other qualities that make a good president as well, but the bottom line is that none of them require any sort of college degree.

So no, it doesn’t bother me that Scott Walker never completed college. Our current president did – and he bothers me much more.

[1] Brewster, Mike (28 Jul 2004). “Frank Lloyd Wright: America’s Architect,” Business Week (The McGraw-Hill Companies)