Phi Beta Cons

Skip College, Win a Seat in Congress

Kristi Noem, the newly elected Republican congresswoman from South Dakota, is missing an important credential. No, I’m not referring to The Huffington Post’s prestigious “Hottest Freshman in Congress” award. She won that one. I’m referring to the fact that she has no four-year degree.

At the age of 39, Noem is reportedly still working on her B.A. in political science part-time at South Dakota State University. Years ago, when she was 20, a family crisis compelled her to drop out of college. She went on to raise three kids and manage a successful cattle ranch. Eventually, she won a seat in the South Dakota state legislature, where she served four years. She didn’t let her lack of a four-year degree hold her back from winning a seat in the United States House of Representatives. I say bully for her.

Surprisingly, Noem’s case is not all that unusual in the Capitol. I did some looking around and discovered that, during the previous Congress, there were 27 members of the House and one member of the Senate (Mark Begich, D., Alaska) with no four-year degree. In total, about 5 percent of all Congress members have no bachelor’s degree.

For much of American history, higher education was not considered a prerequisite for high office. Some of our greatest leaders lacked academic credentials. Lincoln, an autodidact, had famously little formal education. The last U.S. president to serve without a bachelor’s degree was Harry Truman — a man who nevertheless had at least two colleges named after him.

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