Infographic – U.S. Presidents and Higher Education: Charting 45 Unique Journeys to the Oval Office

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presidential education in the USA

Since George Washington took his oath from a Wall Street balcony in 1789, we have had forty-six different presidencies in the United States. That’s forty-six presidencies to celebrate on President’s Day, even if only forty-five individuals actually held the office. Grover Cleveland went against the grain and was elected in two non-consecutive terms – making him our 22nd and 24th president.

Across all those presidents and presidencies, we’ve had a variety of education levels. From Woodrow Wilson, with a Ph.D. in the History of Government, to self-learners like Abraham Lincoln, with a penchant for law and civil liberties but no degree – the history of our highest office has spanned it all.

Yet, whether it was from a lack of opportunity or access to formal learning throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the presidents closest to our own generation have come to understand the immense value of higher education. Since 1953, every single president of the U.S. has earned a bachelor’s degree – reflecting the ever-increasing importance of higher education in our country.

That means if you want to be president, or a lawyer, teacher, politician, doctor, or even the first in your family with a degree – college is your next step on that journey. What footprints should you follow before you’re ready to chart your own course? Next, we’ll look at our presidents and see how higher education eventually led them to the Oval Office.

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Finding the Right College

Out of our forty-five presidents, eleven received no degree, nine graduated from a public undergraduate college, and twenty-five graduated from a private university.

George Washington’s formal education ended when his father passed. However, he still received a surveyor’s certificate from the College of William and Mary. Despite this, Washington loved the idea of formal education and left money and stocks to promote educational accessibility in his will.

Speaking of William and Mary, it is also the fifth most popular place of higher learning for presidents. Four received degrees from this college, including, as mentioned, Washington – alongside Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and John Tyler. Thomas Jefferson is also among the twenty of our presidents who earned graduate degrees as well – his included Honorary Doctor of Laws from both Yale and Harvard.

Not all presidents are educated in the hallowed halls of the Ivy League or centuries-old institutions like William and Mary. Warren G. Harding received his B.A. from Ohio Central College. More recently, our current president Joe Biden studied at the University of Delaware and Barack Obama attended class at Occidental College before transferring to Columbia.

But these haven’t been the only paths to higher education for our presidents. Bill Clinton is one of only two presidents to receive a degree outside the U.S.; he received his undergraduate degree from the University of Oxford in London. He’s also the only president to be named a Rhodes Scholar.

Another avenue taken by three of our presidents was to pursue higher education through U.S. Service academies. Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight Eisenhower were graduates of West Point, while Jimmy Carter graduated from the Naval Academy at Annapolis.

With all that in mind, there are several ways to reach the Oval Office and receive a higher education, and not all of them are a straight line. In fact, many of our presidents had long and established careers as professors, lawyers, and servicemen before serving as POTUS later on in life.


Graduate Schools & Presidential IQs

As mentioned previously, twenty of our presidents have received graduate degrees – many from the universities listed above. Our two Roosevelts, Teddy and Franklin, received graduate degrees posthumously from Columbia Law School. They aren’t alone in law either, as it happens to be the most popular field of study for our presidents, with sixteen attending law school.

However, graduate degrees aren’t the only measure we have of intelligence, effectiveness, and a desire to learn within our presidents – or even our non-presidents.

Abigail Adams, for example, was the wife and First Lady of John Adams. Abigail had no formal education, but many Founding Fathers, including Washington, considered her an extremely intelligent individual who was only held back by the cultural restrictions of the era. Through her many letters and personal journals, scholars now understand how vital Abigail’s counsel was through the Revolutionary War and during her husband’s tenure as the second president of the United States. 

Another clear example of how impactful both Abigail and John’s schooling was seen in their son and sixth president, John Quincy Adams. John Quincy is said to be our most intelligent president with an IQ of 175 – a score that places him with the top 2.1% of the population.

However, intelligence isn’t all that’s needed to be a great president or leader. Ulysses S. Grant, our 19th president, is said to have the lowest IQ among presidents at 120, still placing him well above average. He was revered as a war hero during the Civil War, using his power as president to remove many of the leftover vestiges of slavery.


Making Your Mark

There is no clear-cut path to your future. As many presidents as you’ve seen here with a college degree, many of them didn’t know how they would receive it or, even further, how they would afford it. That said, something common among most U.S. presidents is a desire to learn more.

If you want to be president, follow in the footsteps of those who came before and reach for higher education. 

Whatever steps you can take toward your ultimate ambition – no matter how big the goal or how small the steps – you’re headed in the right direction.


See Where Each President Went to College:

Full NamePresident #Years as PresidentUndergraduate Experience
George Washington11789-1797 (8 years)None
John Adams21797-1801 (4 years)Harvard University
Thomas Jefferson31801-1809 (8 years)The College of William and Mary
James Madison41809-1817 (8 years)Princeton University
James Monroe51817-1825 (8 years)The College of William and Mary (withdrew)
John Quincy Adams61825-1829 (4 years)Harvard University
Andrew Jackson71829-1837 (8 years)None
Martin Van Buren81837-1841 (4 years)None
William Henry Harrison91841 (1 month)None
John Tyler101841-1845 (4 years)The College of William and Mary
James K. Polk111845-1849 (4 years)University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Zachary Taylor121849-1850 (1 year)None
Millard Fillmore131850-1853 (3 years)None
Franklin Pierce141853-1857 (4 years)Bowdoin College
James Buchanan151857-1861 (4 years)Dickinson College
Abraham Lincoln161861- 1865 (4 years)None
Andrew Johnson171865-1869 (4 years)None
Ulysses S. Grant181869-1877 (8 years)United States Military Academy
Rutherford B. Hayes191877-1881 (4 years)Kenyon College
James A. Garfield201881 (6 months)Williams College
Chester A. Arthur211881-1885 (3.5 years)Union College
Grover Cleveland221885-1889 (4 years)None
Benjamin Harrison231889-1893 (4 years)Miami University (Ohio)
Grover Cleveland241893-1897 (4 years)None
William McKinley251897-1901 (4 years)None
Theodore Roosevelt261901-1909 (8 years)Harvard College
William H. Taft271909-1913 (4 years)Yale University
Woodrow Wilson281913-1921 (8 years)Princeton University
Warren G. Harding291921-1923 (2 years)Ohio Central College
Calvin Coolidge301923-1929 (6 years)Amherst College
Herbert C. Hoover311929-1933 (4 years)Stanford University
Franklin D. Roosevelt321933-1945 (12 years)Harvard College
Harry S. Truman331945-1953 (8 years)None
Dwight D. Eisenhower341953-1961 (8 years)United States Military Academy
John F. Kennedy351961-1963 (2 years)Harvard University
Lyndon B. Johnson361963-1969 (6 years)Texas State
Richard M. Nixon371969-1974 (5 years)Whittier College
Gerald R. Ford381974-1977 (3 years)University of Michigan
James (Jimmy) Earl Carter391977-1981 (4 years)United States Naval Academy
Ronald Reagan401981-1989 (8 years)Eureka College
George Bush411989-1993 (4 years)Yale University
William (Bill) J. Clinton421993-2001 (8 years)Georgetown and Oxford 
George W. Bush432001-2009 (8 years)Yale University
Barack H. Obama442009-2017 (8 years)Columbia University
Donald J. Trump452017-2021 (4 years)University of Pennsylvania
Joseph (Joe) R. Biden, Jr.462021-presentUniversity of Deleware

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