10 U.S. Presidents Without College Degree Credentials

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There are no educational requirements for US presidents. But most presidents have college degrees. Current US President, Joseph Biden, attended college at University of Delaware for undergraduate studies. He went to law school and received a law degree from Syracuse University in New York.

But some of the greatest presidents in US history never went to law school. They never attended college or graduated from it. Instead of getting college degrees, these presidents learned from hard work and determination.

Ever wondered which US president never went to school? The following list of presidents proves success does not need a college education. Read on to find out the presidents who didn’t go to college.

10. Andrew Johnson (1865-1869)

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So what president never went to school or earned college degrees? The answer is Andrew Johnson. He came from an uneducated family, and both of his parents were illiterate. He received most of his education from work and friends.

At ten years old, Johnson’s parents sent him to work as a tailor’s apprentice. Here, a fellow employee taught him basic reading and writing skills. According to biographer Annette Gordon-Reed, this is where he developed skills for speech.

When he was 17, Johnson opened a tailor shop of his own in Greenville, Tennessee. He also met his wife Eliza McCardle, who helped him with 3 school subjects:

  • Reading
  • Grammar
  • Mathematics

Compared with many US presidents, Johnson’s education is unorthodox. He never attended law school or earned college degrees. But on March 4, 1865, he became vice president during Abraham Lincoln’s second term. And a month later, on April 15, Johnson became the 17th US president after Lincoln’s assassination.

He never set foot in a formal educational institution. Because of this, Johnson is the only president who never went to school.

9. Zachary Taylor (1849-1850)

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Zachary Taylor is another of ten US presidents without college degree credentials. He grew up on the Ohio River in Kentucky. His parents were planters with little education.

Although Taylor was a quick learner, there were no formal schools where he lived. His early handwriting was “that of a near illiterate.” But this did not stop him from rising to presidential rank. Without a college degree, he became a success.

On May 3, 1808, Taylor joined the army as a first lieutenant.

He spent the next 40 years as a career officer in the US Armed Forces. He participated in many wars. These include:

  • The War of 1812
  • The Black Hawk War (1832)
  • The second of the Seminole Wars (1835-1842)
  • The Mexican American War (1846)

His military success garnered him the status of major general in 1846.

The Whig Party persuaded him to run for presidency. The general populous elected him because of Taylor’s status as a national hero. He took up office on March 4, 1849.

But his presidential term ended soon after, as Taylor died July 9, 1850. Medical examiners ruled the cause a digestive ailment, but rumors of poison circulated.

8. Millard Fillmore (1850-1853)

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Millard Fillmore served as vice president to Taylor, who is the only president who never went to school. After Taylor’s sudden death, Fillmore took over as president. But before this, his formal education was rudimentary at best.

As a child, he worked on his father’s farm. He received most of his education in various one-room schoolhouses.

At age 14, he became an apprentice to a cloth maker in Sparta, New York. Soon after, he took up a similar position in New Hope.

Around five years later, Fillmore attended college at New Hope Academy for half a year. But soon he abandoned cloth making and worked for a local judge, who taught him law.

Fillmore then moved to Buffalo to study law in a lawyer’s office. He became an attorney in 1823 and the owner of his own firm in 1834. The firm (Fillmore, Hall and Haven) became well-regarded and respected.

And despite his lack of formal education, Fillmore founded the University of Buffalo.

He was also a member of four different political parties throughout his life.

Political party memberships

  • Anti-Masonic (1828-1832)
  • Whig (1832-1855)
  • Know Nothing (1855-1856)
  • Democratic (1857-1874)

Fillmore was the last member of the Whig Party to serve as president.

7. James Monroe (1817-1825)

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James Monroe is not considered a president that never went to school. He received a more formal education than many on this list, but never attended college. Despite this, he never received a college degree.

His education started in Virginia, where his mother Elizabeth tutored him at home. Then, when he was 11, he attended Campbelltown Academy. As a child, he excelled at two subjects:

  • Mathematics
  • Latin

In 1774, he began studying at the College of William and Mary. There, Monroe became involved in revolutionary activities. But he dropped out of college in 1775 to join the Continental Army as an officer. He never completed his university degree. But his revolutionary activities continued.

In June of the same year, Monroe and a group of older cohorts broke into the Governor’s Palace. Following the battles of Lexington and Concord, they stole 200 muskets and 300 swords. They gave the weapons to the local militia.

Then in 1780, Monroe began studying law under Thomas Jefferson. He hoped a legal education might assist his aspiring political career.

And it did, because on March 4, 1817, Monroe became the fifth President of the United States. All without attending law schools.

6. Andrew Jackson (1829-1837)

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For Andrew Jackson college wasn’t much of an option. By 15, he was both an orphan and a veteran of the American Revolutionary War.

The British held him as a prisoner when he was a teenager. He also suffered the loss of two brothers around the same time.

Because of the war, his early education was sporadic at best. School was not on the forefront of his mind. But after the war ended, he decided to further his education despite its rough beginning. He moved to Salisbury, North Carolina, to study law and passed the bar exam in 1787.

That same year, he became a country lawyer. Then, in 1788, he moved to the frontier town of Nashville. Here, he practiced law and involved himself in local politics. Jackson became the state’s first congressman, and later a senator.

In 1801 Jackson rose to commander of the Tennessee militia and led his forces to many victories. His actions during the War of 1812 made him a national hero. He earned two major awards.

Awards Received

  • A Congressional Gold Medal
  • The Thanks of Congress

Sworn in on March 4, 1829, Jackson held office as the seventh US president until 1837.

5. Grover Cleveland (1885-1897)

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Which president never went to school or college? As this list shows, there are many, and Grover Cleveland is one of them. Like the other presidents listed here, he did not receive a college degree.

Cleveland grew up in Fayetteville, New York. Here, he attended school until age 16. The death of his father forced him to drop out and support his family.

His brother got him an assistant teacher position at the New York Institute for the Blind. But Cleveland only held this job for a year before moving out west. One of his church elders offered to pay for his college education if he became a minister. But Cleveland turned the offer down and headed for Buffalo.

Here, his uncle employed him as a clerk. Through this job, Cleveland met many influential figures. He soon started working for the law firm Rogers, Bowen, and Rogers.

In 1859, the law firm helped him pass the bar exam.

Despite his lack of college education or college degrees, Cleveland’s political career grew. He became the Buffalo mayor and served as the 31st governor of New York.

Because he never attended college, Cleveland did not enjoy high culture. His free time consisted of the following:

  • Poker parties
  • Democratic organizational work
  • Drinking with friends

He rarely traveled or read, unlike other presidential figures. But his experiences in law led him to the presidency in 1885.

Cleveland remains the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms. And given his informal education, he is a president that never went to school.

4. William Henry Harrison (1841)

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William Henry Harrison had a notable political family. Growing up in Virginia, he studied Latin and French at many institutions. By the time he was 18, he enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania. Here, he studied medicine.

But Harrison did not enjoy his studies, so when his father died that same year, he dropped out. Because his father’s death left him without college funds, Harrison joined the US Army.

He was in the army for seven years until he retired. Then, he set forth on a political career, becoming the Indiana Territory’s governor in 1801.

On March 3, 1841, he became the ninth President of the United States.

Harrison is best known for serving the briefest term in US presidential history and without college degrees. He died a month after his inauguration of two different causes:

  • Pneumonia
  • Septicemia

3. George Washington (1789-1797)

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George Washington is another answer to the question “who was the only president who never went to school?” He never went to college and received no education past the age of 11.

He spent his childhood in Virginia, learning from several tutors. He also attended an Anglican clergyman-run school for some time. But when Washington was 11, his father died and left little money. This prevented him from attending the Appleby School in England like his brothers.

To support his studies, Washington taught himself through reading and exploration. Three major forces drove his self-education:

  • His copy of Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation
  • His half-brother Lawrence
  • The Fairfax family

Lawrence exposed George Washington to the high social class of Virginia. And the Fairfax family taught him mathematics and science.

Washington also credits his mother for the success he achieved later in life. Of her, Washington said, “All I am I owe to my mother.”

And in 1789, he became the first President of the United States.

2. Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865)

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Abraham Lincoln is another of our ten presidents without college degree credentials. He received little academic training during his formative years. By the time he was 18, he could “read, write and cipher.” But his limited formal schooling from itinerant teachers didn’t amount to much else.

Despite this, Lincoln was an ambitious learner. He devoured any book he came across, including those on law. But he never receive a bachelor’s degree or went to law school. His self-teaching and dedication to hard work made him a practicing lawyer.

Lawyer life

Abraham Lincoln spent eight years on the Illinois legislature and traveled courtroom to courtroom. Although he had no formal schooling or a law degree, Lincoln viewed learning as crucial.

One of his law partners described his ambition as “a little engine that knew no rest.” It was this ambition that led him to the presidency.

Lincoln held office from March 4, 1861, until his assassination on April 15, 1865.

1. Harry S. Truman (1945-1953)

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While Truman isn’t the answer to the question “who is the only president that never went to school?”, he never received a college degree. But this does not mean he didn’t appreciate education.

As a young child, Truman enjoyed three main subjects:

  • History
  • Piano
  • Reading

In 1901 he graduated from Independence High School. The institution now called William Chrisman High School.

He then enrolled in Spalding’s Commercial College to study business. But he dropped out after one semester and didn’t receive a bachelor’s degree. His family’s financial situation became dire by the day. Soon, they were unable to pay for Truman’s education.

But in 1923 he gave higher education a second try. He took night classes at the Kansas City School of Law.

Then, in 1925 he lost his administrative government job with the Jackson County Court. And again, he dropped out of school.

His second attempt failed after he lost his administrative government job with the Jackson County Court. Despite rumors, he never went to law school and was without a college degree.

After his trouble with college, Truman became a US senator in 1934. And on January 20, 1945, he became vice president, serving under Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Three months later, FDR’s sudden death thrust Truman into the limelight. Before this, he had served as vice president a mere 82 days. He became the 33rd US president, holding office until January 20, 1953.

Truman is the most recent US president to have never obtained law degrees or even a bachelor’s degree. But the politician still realized the importance of education.

As Truman once said, “Knowledge is not only key to power. It is the citadel of human freedom.”

Presidents who attended law school or earned college degrees

  • Bill Clinton – Yale University and Law School
  • John Quincy Adams – Harvard University

Most presidents like John Quincy Adams and Bill Clinton have earned college degrees or attended law school. They attended Columbia law school, for example, and earned law degrees. They are also college graduates with a bachelor’s degree and graduate school education. Very few are without a college degree.

Even older presidents have at least a college diploma or a bachelor’s degree. And most attended graduate school where they earned college degrees. But without a college degree or if you never attended Columbia Law School, you can still be a success. Because Bill Clinton or Barack Obama went to school, doesn’t mean you have to. Unless, of course, you plan to follow in their footsteps on your road to the White House.

Famous Albany Law School alumns:

  • Tom Vilsack (Albany Law School)
  • Andrew Cuomo (Albany Law School)

Related:

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Ultimate Guide to Liberal Arts Degrees and Careers

BDP Staff

May 2022

This concludes our article on 10 US Presidents who never graduated from college.

Brenda Rufener
Author

Julie McCaulley
Expert

Carrie Sealey-Morris
Editor-in-Chief