Which US Presidents Didn’t Have a College Degree?
Education is one of the key factors that people look at when they decide which future president to vote for.
Many of the past presidents from the United States had studied law, which is not surprising, since they are, after all, in charge of the entire nation.
But it might surprise you to know that there were 12 US presidents who didn’t get a college degree!
Listed below are 12 US presidents that were educated but didn’t have a college degree. (all images courtesy whitehouse.gov)
George Washington (1st president)
The first president and a Founding Father of the United States hadn’t been born into a very wealthy family.
Although his family had employed slaves for their plantation, they were considered “middle class”.
Washington was 11 years old when his father died, effectively blocking any chance he had of formal schooling.
He was able to attain a surveyor’s license from the College of William and Mary (one of the nine Colonial Colleges), but he never got a college degree.
Washington believed in formal education though, so he left much of his money to be used for colleges, as his wife was unable to bear him children (they had instead raised Martha Washington’s children from her first marriage).
James Monroe (5th president)
Monroe was the last Founding Father who became president of the country.
He was the fifth person to take the most powerful position in the nation, but like Washington, he didn’t graduate with a college degree.
He had a tutor as a child, and was able to study at the Campbell town Academy.
When his father died, Monroe ran the household and the plantation.
His family, who owned many slaves, was part of the upper class of the state of Virginia.
Monroe had studied at the College of William and Mary, but during the time of the growing rebellion, he, like many students, abandoned his studies to join the war effort.
After a year and a few months in college, Monroe dropped out to join the Continental Army, together with some students from the same college.
Andrew Jackson (7th president)
Jackson was born near the end of the colonial era. As a young child of 13, he was already helping the militia against the British forces.
He and his brother were captured by the British, but only Jackson survived the torture. This fueled his hatred towards their colonizers.
At the age of 14, Andrew Jackson became an orphan.
He never had a formal education, but he was able to receive a few lessons from a local school. He actually studied law in North Carolina, and was admitted to the bar.
Studying law during his time was different from the requirements of the present.
His study of law was informal, as he didn’t have the means to pursue it completely. But he knew enough to work in frontier law. He was eventually sworn into position in 1829.
Martin Van Buren (8th president)
Van Buren was the first president born after the American colonies declared independence. He had studied at village schoolhouse and at Kinderhook Academy, then at Washington Seminary.
He read law at an attorney’s office, but never went to college for a formal education.
Coming from a poor family, Van Buren made connections at conventions to secure apprenticeship and partnership with various influential political members.
He was appointed Secretary of State by Andrew Jackson, and became president in 1837.
One etymologist claimed that the phrase OK (or “okay”) originated from Van Buren’s campaign, which used “Old Kinderhook”, although this piece of history is largely contested.
William Henry Harrison (9th president)
Harrison was the second oldest person to become the president at the age of 68 years old (Ronald Reagan was the oldest, at age 70).
He also had the shortest presidential term – just after 32 days in office when he died of pneumonia.
Harrison had studied, as a young child, at the Presbyterian Hampden-Sydney College (now a liberal arts college for men, and was the oldest private charter college in the country).
He then studied at another school in Southampton County, where he began to have anti-slavery ideas, which angered his father.
When he was older, he studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, but his father died, and so Harrison was unable to complete his college degree, which he didn’t like anyway.
Zachary Taylor (12th president)
Taylor also had a short presidential term (just 17 months).
Although his family was prominent, he never received any formal schooling. In fact, although he was described as bright, he was bad at grammar and spelling.
So instead of pursuing a college education, Taylor went to join the army, where he became famous for his deeds during the Mexican-American war.
He became the people’s favorite, a fact, which was to his advantage when he ran for presidency.
Millard Fillmore (13th president)
Although Fillmore founded the University of Buffalo, he didn’t have a college degree himself.
When he was young, he started to learn cloth-making.
Living on the frontier dashed his hopes of getting a formal education.
Instead, he studied law under a judge in Montville. He moved to Buffalo to continue his law studies, and began practicing after 1823.
He became a successful lawyer and a soldier, and in 1846 founded the university, which is now called the State University of New York at Buffalo.
Abraham Lincoln (16th president)
Perhaps the poster child of never giving up, Lincoln is one of the most well-loved presidents of the country.
He was an abolitionist, a lawyer, and a leader who came from a poor family, and who eventually saw the country through the Civil War.
Growing up on the frontier, Lincoln had very little chance of getting a formal education. But he never gave up.
When he couldn’t find a school, Lincoln taught himself.
Known for his eloquent speeches (with the Gettysburg Address being the most famous), Lincoln read many books and made friends with influential people. He had a dream, and he pursued it relentlessly.
He became a lawyer, a member of the House of Representative, then a president when he was able to get support from the North to abolish slavery.
Andrew Johnson (17th president)
He was the first president to be impeached, largely because he had conflicts with the mostly Republican Congress, was unable to protect former slaves, and couldn’t measure up to Lincoln’s term.
He was born into a poor family, and became a tailor’s apprentice at a young age, where he learned to read and write from customers who came to the shop.
Johnson loved to read and listen to readings, and although he never got a formal education, he loved learning – a fact which had influenced his oratorical skills.
Andrew didn’t complete his apprenticeship, so he ran away.
He established his own tailoring business in Tennessee. His business boomed, he started to read more books, and although he didn’t pursue college, he joined debates in Greeneville College (now Tusculum College).
He soon started to join political parties in his town.
Grover Cleveland (22nd and 24th president)
Cleveland was the only president in the country’s history to serve as chief two non-consecutive times.
He was born Stephen Grover Cleveland, but during adulthood, he was more commonly known by his middle name.
During his younger years, Cleveland studied at Fayetteville Academy and Clinton Liberal Academy.
His father died, so Cleveland stopped his studies and decided to work. He worked as an assistant teacher at the New York Institute for the Blind (now New York Institute for the Special Education).
Someone from their church promised to send him to college if he would become a minister, but Cleveland wanted something else for himself, so he refused.
He read law and went on to become sheriff, mayor, governor, and finally president.
William McKinley (25th president)
McKinley was born into a middle class family with Methodist beliefs.
He had a formal schooling, and was soon able to study at the Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. But he stayed only for a year before he went home due to depression and an illness.
He tried again at the Mt. Union College in Ohio, but his health and financial obstacles stopped him from pursuing his college degree.
He eventually studied at Albany Law School, but after less than a year, he was admitted to the bar and left.
His career in law and politics boomed, and he was able to make friends with members of political parties who encouraged him to run for presidency.
Harry S. Truman (33rd president)
Truman attended the Presbyterian Church Sunday School, but was not able to get formal schooling until he was 8 years old.
He had many talents and loved to learn many things like music, history, and reading.
Truman went to Independence High School (now William Chrisman High School), and after graduating went to Spalding’s Commercial College.
He stayed there for only less than a year, and worked different odd jobs soon after.
Truman had also taken night classes so that he could attain a Bachelor of Laws degree at the Kansas City Law School (now University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law), but stopped when he wasn’t re-elected as a county judge.
It was only when he had become president that Truman applied to become a lawyer (since his experience and education was enough to get a license), but he soon changed his mind and didn’t follow up on his application.
When the Missouri Supreme Court found his application 24 years after his death, they issued an honorary law license.