Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden suggested Thursday evening during a CNN town hall that, if elected, he would be the first president without a degree from an Ivy League university.
“When you guys started talking on television about ‘Biden, if he wins will be the first person without an Ivy League degree to be elected president.’ I said, ‘Who the hell makes you think I need an Ivy League degree to be president?’ I’m not joking,” said Biden.
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) September 18, 2020
Biden’s suggestion, which was later fact-checked by ABC News, is wrong. While the Ivy League universities boast over a dozen presidents, including John Adams, the second president of the United States, more than 25 other presidents, including George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan, didn’t receive an Ivy League degree.
In fact, these six Americans were elected as president of the United States without college degrees at all:
George Washington (1789-1797)
George Washington, the Revolutionary War hero and the first president of the United States, didn’t receive much in the way of formal schooling and never attended college. However, Washington enjoyed an array of academic subjects, which he studied on his own, including fiction, history, and philosophy. He was also a fan of practical knowledge. According to one historian, Washington was even derided by some of his contemporaries, including John Adams, who succeeded Washington as president and once referred to him as “too illiterate, unlearned, unread for his station and reputation.”
Source: Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow
Andrew Jackson (1829-1837)
Born in a remote area between South Carolina and North Carolina, Andrew Jackson lacked a formal education and never attended college. Despite his lack of schooling and educational opportunities, Jackson came to enjoy reading and later became a lawyer through self-study, eventually serving on the Tennessee Supreme Court. In subsequent years, he gained national attention as a major general in the War of 1812, in which he won the Battle of New Orleans, and was later elected president of the United States.
Source: Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times by H.W. Brands
Martin Van Buren (1837-1841)
The son of Dutch immigrants, Martin van Buren started his formal education in a one-room schoolhouse and learned English as a second language. When he turned 14, his father sent him away to study law at a lawyer’s office. After turning 21, Van Buren returned as a lawyer, and eventually started a political journey that included serving as a local official, state senator, state attorney general, New York governor, U.S. senator, secretary of state, vice president, and ultimately ninth president of the United States.
Source: Miller Center
Zachary Taylor (1849-1850)
A dedicated member of the U.S. military, Zachary Taylor received little formal education, but was widely knowledgeable in practical frontier skills, having been raised in Kentucky. As a young adult, Taylor left home for a career in the military and served in multiple wars over the span of four decades, including the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War between 1846 and 1848, eventually rising to the rank of Brigadier General. In 1848, less than a year after the war shortly had ended, Taylor was elected president.
Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865)
As a child, Abraham Lincoln didn’t receive extensive formal schooling. Nonetheless, he had a strong appetite for learning, and was known to carry around books and commit to memory some of what he did read. Although he initially believed a legal career was outside of his reach, once an adult, Lincoln was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives and decided to self-study the law. He later served a term in the U.S. House of Representatives, and was elected president in 1860 in a four-way race, with 39% of the popular vote but a decisive Electoral College victory.
Source: Lincoln by David Herbert Donald
Grover Cleveland (1885-1889; 1893-1897)
The fifth of nine siblings, Grover Cleveland was raised in upstate New York, where he attended school until his father’s death in 1853, at which point he worked to support his family. Cleveland, unable to afford the cost of college, worked at a law office for several years, pursuing self-study in order to pass the bar exam. He launched his political career as the sheriff of Erie County, New York, where he served for two years. Nearly a decade later, Cleveland sought higher office, and went from Mayor of Buffalo, New York, to governor, to president of the United States, in the span of only three years. He is the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms in office.