There are very few presidents without college degrees in American history. That's not to say there haven't been any, or that it's impossible to work in politics without a college degree. Legally, you can be elected president of the United States even if you didn't go to college. The U.S. Constitution does not set forth any education requirements for presidents.
But it's a pretty extraordinary achievement for a president without a college degree to be elected today. Every chief executive elected to the White House in modern history has held at least a bachelor's degree. Most have earned advanced degrees or law degrees from Ivy League schools. In fact, every president since George H.W. Bush has held a degree from an Ivy League university.
Bush was a graduate of Yale University. So was his son, George W. Bush, the 43rd president, and Bill Clinton. Barack Obama got his law degree from Harvard University. Donald Trump, the billionaire real-estate developer and businessman elected president in 2016, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, another Ivy League school.
The trend is clear: not only do modern presidents have college degrees, but they've also earned degrees from the most elite universities in the United States. But it wasn't always common for presidents to have earned degrees or even attended college. In fact, educational attainment wasn't a prime consideration among voters.
Education of Early Presidents
Fewer than half of the nation's first 24 presidents held college degrees. That's because they just didn't need to.
"For much of the nation's history a college education was a prerequisite for the rich, well-connected or both; of the first 24 men who became president, 11 had not graduated from college at all (though three of those had attended some college without earning a degree)," wrote Drew DeSilver, a senior writer at the Pew Research Center.
The most recent president without a college degree was Harry S. Truman, who served until 1953. The 33rd president of the United States, Truman attended business college and law school but graduated from neither.
List of Presidents Without College Degrees
- George Washington: The nation's first president never took college courses but did earn a surveyor's certificate.
- James Monroe: The nation's fifth president attended William & Mary College but didn't graduate.
- Andrew Jackson: The seventh president did not attend college.
- Martin Van Buren: The nation's eighth president did not attend college.
- William Henry Harrison: The ninth president of the United States attended both Hampden-Sydney College and the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine; he didn't graduate from either.
- Zachary Taylor: The nation's 12th president did not attend college.
- Millard Fillmore: The 13th president did not attend college.
- Abraham Lincoln: The 16th president did not attend college.
- Andrew Johnson: The 17th president did not attend college.
- Grover Cleveland: The 22nd president did not attend college.
- William McKinley: The 25th president took courses at both Allegheny College and Albany Law School but did not graduate from either.
- Harry S. Truman: The 33rd president took courses at Spalding's Commercial College and the University of Kansas City School of Law but didn't earn degrees from either.
Why Presidents Need College Degrees Now
Even though nearly a dozen U.S. presidents - including some very successful ones - never earned degrees, every White House occupant since Truman has earned at least a bachelor's degree. Would the likes of Lincoln and Washington be elected today without degrees?
"Probably not," wrote Caitlin Anderson on CollegePlus, an organization that works with students to earn degrees. "Our information saturated society believes education must take place in the traditional classroom setting. Having a college degree makes candidates attractive. It makes anyone attractive. It's essential."