Scott Walker, dropout president?
By Al Kamen and Colby Itkowitz
Our colleague David Fahrenthold traveled to Milwaukee to check out why Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker left
college without graduating. The simplest answer is Walker’s own: He got a job — though whether there is more to
that story remains unclear.
What is clear is that if Walker ascended to the White House — he’s holding his own in most GOP primary polls —
he’d be the first president in more than 60 years without at least a bachelor’s degree. Of America’s 44 presidents,
just 11 didn’t graduate from college.
Moreover, only one was from the 20th century. That would be Harry Truman — who withdrew from Spalding’s
Commercial College in Missouri. But he was first elected as an incumbent, having taken over the job after
Franklin Roosevelt ’s death.
The last college dropout to be elected outright was William McKinley, in 1897. He left Allegheny College in
Pennsylvania after one year.
H.W. Brands, a presidential historian at the University of Texas, said unless you’re someone like Bill Gates or Steve
Jobs (both college dropouts), not having a college degree would be “a serious
handicap” in running for president.
“Nowadays a college degree has become the entry credential to nearly all jobs requiring any skill at all. A candidate
lacking one would have some heavy explaining to do,” he said.
The other former presidents without a college diploma were George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Martin
Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew
Johnson and Grover Cleveland.
Matt Dallek, a professor of political science at George Washington University’s graduate school, said playing the
outsider, “I’m just like you” card has become more common in recent politics, but ultimately presidential candidates
tend to be “a fairly privileged group of people.”
“Voters want some sense that our leaders are particularly gifted, smart, accomplished, extraordinary but at the same
time ordinary,” Dallek said.
Still, Dallek does not believe pointing out Walker’s lack of a college degree would be a winning attack by his
There’s a fine line in higher-education politics: Don’t look down on voters who didn’t go to college, but maybe don’t
take the Rick Santorum tack of calling them snobs if they think people should attend.
Douglas Brinkley, a historian at Rice University, agreed that there is a balance to strike but said Walker can use
his lack of a degree as a strength, tapping into the many American voters who did not attend or finish college, who
may be attracted to him as a sort of blue-collar hero. Truman was that person for a lot of people, Brinkley said, “the
patron saint of the underdog.”
“You have to live by your biography,” he said. “It’s a way to identify with the working class — to mire himself in the