When you hear Harvard or Yale’ you may often think of the very best. That includes its output of graduates who are at the top of their field. One such group is Presidents and other significant leaders.
Not all presidents, however, walked the halls of an Ivy League. Some didn’t even attend college at all. Here is a breakdown of the higher education of every man who has led the nation.
Quick Note: This includes colleges that the President dropped out of or transfered from.
John Adams (Harvard) – Adams arrived at Harvard aged 16, not uncommon for the time.
James Madison (Princeton) – Madison graduated a year early.
Theodore Roosevelt (Harvard, Columbia) – Roosevelt was an excellent student and came 22nd out of his class of 177.
Franklin D. Roosevelt (Harvard, Columbia) – FDR dropped out of Columbia after passing the New York bar exam.
JFK (Harvard) – JFK’s admissions essay is certainly an interesting read. It seems that flattery and a rich father helps a lot. He also attended Stanford briefly, but he audited classes, meaning he’d not get any academic credit.
George H. W. Bush (Yale) – Bush took an accelerated course that allowed him to graduate in two years instead of the usual four.
George W. Bush (Yale, Harvard) – The only president thus far to get an MBA.
All of the men here came from prominent and wealthy families. This is indicative of the times that they lived in; the older presidents lived in a time where only wealthy, white men could attend an Ivy whilst some Ivies didn’t even admit women until the 80s.
Adams, Madison and the Roosevelts got the vague Bachelor of Arts major, befitting education at the time. Kennedy majored in Government, H. W. Bush in Economics with a minor in sociology, and W. Bush in History. Adams also received a Master of the Arts.
Ivy League + Non-Ivy League
John Quincy Adams (European Universities, Harvard) – Adams spent most of his childhood and young adult years in Europe as a companion to his diplomat father. He attended multiple European universities, most notably Leiden University. He enrolled in his father’s alma mater upon his return to the States.
Rutherford B. Hayes (Kenyon, Harvard) – Hayes was a successful student who graduated as valedictorian from Kenyon. He then attended law school at Harvard.
William H. Taft (Yale, Cincinnati)
Woodrow Wilson (Davidson, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, Virginia) – Wilson remains the only President thus far with a PhD. He was a very respected academic before he entered politics and was an expert in political philosophy. Wilson entered law school in Virginia before gaining his PhD, but withdrew. He was also dyslexic.
Gerald Ford (Michigan, Yale) – Despite his somewhat silly reputation, Ford was an intelligent man and star athlete who rejected offers to play for the NFL.
Bill Clinton (Georgetown, Oxford, Yale) – Clinton was a Rhodes Scholar and spent a year studying at Oxford.
Barack Obama (Occidental, Columbia, Harvard) – Obama initially attended Occidental before transferring to Columbia. He edited the prestigious Harvard Law Review.
Donald Trump (Fordham, UPenn) – Trump initially attended Fordham before transferring to UPenn.
These men all attended a mix of Ivy League and non-Ivies. One might say John Q. Adams should be a full Ivy League man as he did drop out of his European university, but I count it.
Wilson was a political philosophy and history major at Princeton before getting his PhD in history and government from Johns Hopkins. Ford studied economics at Michigan before attending Yale Law. Clinton got a Foreign Service degree from Georgetown, briefly attended Oxford, then went to Yale Law. Obama transferred to Columbia from Occidental College, majoring in political science, and went to Harvard for law school.
These men were not from the elite in the same way the presidents mentioned earlier were. Three were: Adams was from a political dynasty. Whilst Taft’s family weren’t wealthy, his father was prominent politically. And the Trumps were, of course, very rich.
Contrast this with the rest. Wilson, Hayes, Ford and Obama were from moderate circumstances. Clinton came from a relatively poor Arkansas town.
Thomas Jefferson (William and Mary) – Like Adams, Jefferson enrolled at college aged 16. Though he could have attended an Ivy League, William and Mary was still a prestigious institution. Most importantly, it was in his native Virginia.
John Tyler (William and Mary) – Tyler graduated aged 17. He also most likely decided to stay in Virginia for his health and for his strong family connections.
James K. Polk (North Carolina-Chapel Hill) – Polk transferred into Chapel Hill.
Franklin Pierce (Bowdoin, Northampton) – Pierce only spent a term at Northampton Law School.
James Buchanan (Dickinson) – Buchanan graduated with honors after nearly being kicked out.
Ulysses S. Grant (West Point) – Grant enjoyed his time there despite being an average student. He was most noted as a brilliant horseman, something he was respected for throughout his entire career.
James A. Garfield (Hiram, Williams) – Garfield was an average student though proficient in Latin and Greek.
Chester A. Arthur (Union, State and National Law) – Arthur left law school after a year in order to study with a family friend.
Benjamin Harrison (Farmer’s, Miami) – Harrison met his wife Caroline whilst at Farmer’s. One of his classmates at Miami was Whitelaw Reid, his future running mate.
Warren G. Harding (Ohio Central) – Harding’s college life is not well documented, but he was a decent student at the very least.
Calvin Coolidge (Amherst) – Coolidge won the top prize in a nationwide essay contest whilst at Amherst. He enjoyed his time there and was a champion debater despite his natural shyness.
Herbert Hoover (Stanford) – Hoover was part of the first ever class at Stanford; he even called himself the first student. He initially studied engineering before settling on geology. His wife Lou was the only female geology student at the time, and that was how they met.
Dwight D. Eisenhower (West Point) – Eisenhower’s mother was a devout pacifist and he attended West Point in spite of her wishes against it. He was an average student who often got into trouble. The 1915 class which he graduated from was known as the “class the stars fell on” due to a number of them becoming generals in the future. One of his classmates was Omar Bradley.
Lyndon B. Johnson (Texas State, Georgetown) – Johnson got a certificate of education along with his degree and worked as a teacher. He attended Georgetown Law for a short time before quitting.
Richard Nixon (Whittier, Duke) – Nixon was third in his high school class but was unable to take up the grant that Harvard offered him. He instead entered the local Whittier College before arriving at Duke Law School. Nixon took advantage of the scholarship he kept throughout Duke. Nixon was in the top percentage of his Whittier class and graduated third at Duke.
Jimmy Carter (Georgia Southwestern, Georgia Tech, Naval Academy) – Carter attended both George Southwestern and Georgia Tech before finally gaining admission to the Naval Academy. He graduated high up in his class.
Ronald Reagan (Eureka) – Reagan was an average student but was very popular among his peers and was active on the social scene.
Joe Biden (Delaware, Syracuse) – Biden was an average student at Delaware and ranked near bottom of his class at Syracuse Law.
Here we have the bulk of our Presidential education. The colleges attended by these men stretch all the way from California to Delaware.
Several of these men attended military school: Grant and Eisenhower both graduated from West Point whilst Carter went to the Naval Academy. Obviously Grant and Eisenhower went on to have a career in the military whilst Carter’s service was cut short by his father’s death.
The presidents listed here are predominantly from middle or working-class homes, though men like Jefferson and Tyler were from the old planter class. We also see a good variety of majors in this list, from Johnson’s teaching certification to Hoover’s geology.
The 2020 combo of Biden-Harris was the first time since 1984 that there was no Ivy League graduate ticket.
James Monroe (William and Mary) – Monroe dropped out of college to join the Revolutionary War.
William H. Harrison (Hampden-Sydney, UPenn) – Harrison was removed from Hampden-Sydney by his father, who did not like their religious stance. He was unable to continue studying medicine at UPenn due to lack of funds.
William McKinley (Allegheny, Mount Union, Albany) – McKinley dropped out of Allegheny due to poor health and financial constraints. He studied at Albany for less than a year.
Harry S. Truman (Spalding’s, Missouri-Kansas) – Truman is the most recent President not to be a college graduate. He left Spalding’s, a business school, after a year. He also left Missouri-Kansas law school.
George Washington – Washington was not an intellectual like many of the other Founding Fathers, but he was not stupid by any means. His education was informal and he became an apprentice.
Andrew Jackson – Jackson was barely educated, having joined the Revolutionary War at thirteen. He seemed to have a dim view of his elite colleagues, but didn’t seem anti-intellectual. Jackson did learn to read at a young age and like Washington, was still fairly bright. He became a lawyer through study.
Martin Van Buren – Van Buren did not enter law school and instead learned the profession through an apprenticeship.
Zachary Taylor – Taylor joined the military aged 24. His education was rather informal and inadequate. Surviving letters are practically illegible, he was perhaps illiterate, and he possibly had dyslexia or some other learning difficulty.
Millard Fillmore – Fillmore came from a very poor family and became a lawyer through an apprenticeship.
Abraham Lincoln – Lincoln’s family needed him to work, so that took precedence over any schooling. He became a lawyer without law school or an apprenticeship.
Andrew Johnson – Johnson never received schooling due to his family’s poverty and was set to work at only ten. His wife Eliza would later teach him whilst he worked at his tailor shop.
Grover Cleveland – His father’s death forced Cleveland to forgo college. He later studied law as a clerk and got admitted to the Bar.
The presidents without education came from a mix of poverty, financial issues or simple lack of interest. It has been over a century since any President had absolutely no college education.
What’s the future of Presidential education?
It’s extremely unlikely any future President won’t have at least attended college. Opportunities that earlier presidents may have had do not exist for those who do not pursue higher education. Many high flying politicians have either gone to law or graduate school.
Kamala Harris, the current Vice President and potential next Democratic candidate, attended Howard University and the University of California, Hastings law school.
Potential Republican candidates are as followed:
- Ron DeSantis – Yale and Harvard
- Tucker Carlson – Trinity
- Nikki Haley – Clemson
- Mike Pence – Hanover and Indiana-Purdue
- Ted Cruz – Princeton and Harvard
- Mike DeWine – Miami and Ohio Northern
- Mike Pompeo – West Point and Harvard
- Kristi Noem – South Dakota State
Potential Democratic candidates are as followed:
- Pete Buttigieg – Harvard and Oxford
- Amy Klobucha r- Yale and Chicago
- Elizabeth Warren – Houston and Rutgers
- Julian Castro – Stanford and Harvard
- Roy Cooper – North Carolina- Chapel Hill
- Gretchen Whitmer – Michigan State
- Mitch Landrieu – Catholic and Loyola
- Stacey Abrams – Spelman, Texas-Austin and Yale
Quite a few Ivy League graduates, and no non-college grads.