Quick Study: Presidents without diplomas

Lacking degrees, 12 presidents pursued independent study.
Lacking degrees, 12 presidents pursued independent study.
We associate great success with prestigious colleges and universities. But did you know that 12 American presidents didn’t even get a college degree?

      To be sure, in recent years, it is more common to encounter leaders with high-powered credentials. President Barack Obama earned his undergraduate degree from Columbia University and his law degree from Harvard University. George W. Bush has an undergraduate degree from Yale University and an MBA from Harvard. Bill Clinton graduated from Georgetown University, was a Rhodes scholar and went to law school at Yale. And George H.W. Bush graduated from Yale.
      But it wasn’t always anticipated that our country's leader would hold (at least) a college diploma, as Pew Research Center  points out. Indeed, these 12 presidents never earned a college degree:
  1. George Washington: Unlike other notable founders (John Adams' alma mater was Harvard, and Thomas Jefferson graduated from the College of William & Mary), Washington did not attend college. As a child, he learned reading, writing and math, but his formal education ended by the time he was 15, according to the George Washington’s Mount Vernon website. Afterward, he became a surveyor and soldier in the Virginia militia.
  2. James Monroe:  At 16, the fifth president enrolled at William & Mary, according to The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents by William A. DeGregorio (Barricade Books; 1993). But soon after the Revolutionary War began, he wanted a piece of the action and dropped out to join the Continental Army. While never formally earning a degree, Monroe later studied law under Thomas Jefferson.
  3. Andrew Jackson: At best, the seventh president’s education can be described as sporadic. His mother wanted him to be a minister– but he had no such inclination, according to the website for his home, Andrew Jackson's Hermitage. He studied law by apprenticing himself to lawyers in North Carolina. Jackson had a wild reputation and was known to frequent taverns.
  4. Martin Van Buren: Raised in a Dutch community of New York, the eighth president had a basic education. At 14, he studied law at the office of an attorney, where he quickly learned to develop legal arguments. Van Buren, who spoke Dutch at home and in his community, was the only president for whom English was a second language, according to the website for his birthplace, the Martin Van Buren National Historic Site.
  5. William Henry Harrison: As a young man, the ninth president was on his way to earning a medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School in Philadelphia. Indeed, he studied under Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and much respected doctor of the time. Along the way, Harrison ran out of money and joined the Army in 1791, according to DeGregorio and the Grouseland Foundation, the website for Harrison's home.
  6. Zachary Taylor: The 12th president received a basic education and was a poor speller throughout his life. He did study privately with tutors, however, including an Irish Catholic immigrant and classical scholar, DeGregorio writes. 
  7. Millard Fillmore: The 13th president was self-educated, expanding his knowledge by going to a community library and studying a dictionary. Fillmore studied law at the office of attorneys.  
  8. Abraham Lincoln: Also largely self-taught, the beloved 16th president grew up on the frontier. While working on the farm and subsequently as a storekeeper, he read and attempted to learn independently.Through dogged study with borrowed books from an attorney, Lincoln educated himself in law, according to the website for Lincoln's home in New Salem, Illinois.
  9. Andrew Johnson: Most other presidents without formal degrees were given instruction or, at some point, sat in a classroom. But  the 17th president never attended a day of school, according to DeGregorio. Johnson taught himself to read. Even so, he was described as an adept stump speaker.
  10. Grover Cleveland: He attended public schools and had plans to enter college, according to the website for his birthplace. But his father died, and Cleveland went to work to support his family. Later, he clerked for a law firm and became a lawyer. Cleveland, famously, is the only president to serve two nonconsecutive terms. He was the 22nd and the 24th president.
  11. William McKinley: During childhood in Ohio, the 25the president had been a good student and a gifted orator, DeGregorio writes. He entered Allegheny College at Meadville, Pennsylvania, at 17, but left due to physical exhaustion from studying too hard. He turned 18 in 1861 and joined the Union Army.  After the war, he studied law at a judge's office in Youngstown, Ohio. He attended Albany Law School in New York in 1866-67 but dropped out without graduating. Even so, he was admitted to the bar in Ohio in 1867. 
  12. Harry Truman: As a young man, the 33rd president was a voracious reader. Poor eyesight kept him from applying to West Point, according to DeGregorio. He attended Kansas City Law School but did not graduate. He worked as a farmer and businessman.

    Quick Study was compiled by YT&T editors using these sources:


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