Presidents find unique paths to Oval Office

Erin Zaranec

There’s no standardized schooling one can participate in to prepare to become president of the United States. Over the course of our country’s history, 43 men have served as the nation’s highest power, but nearly all of them have taken a different pathway to the presidency. 

There is no clear cut path to the White House, according to Michael Ensley, a Kent State political science associate professor.

“I would tend to think of it more as your degree and career choice provide you with expertise,” Ensley said. “If you combine the expertise to public policy problems and interest in using politics to change public policy, that is what matters more. So, if you are a hard scientist who cares about global warming and want to affect policy, that can be a very effective combination.”

While academic majors and career paths have ranged from education to mine engineering, higher education is a common thread among most, but not all, presidents.

George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson and Grover Cleveland never spent a day enrolled in a collegiate program.

Washington received no formal education after age 15, becoming a county surveyor at age 17 instead. Lincoln may have been called ‘Honest Abe,’ but he wasn’t a formally educated man. He is believed to have less than one year of formal education, with the rest of his knowledge coming from reading and being self-taught.

Harry Truman, the nation’s 33rd president, attended a business college for one semester before dropping out and returning to work on a family farm. Lyndon B. Johnson, the 36th president, studied education, working as a public speaking teacher before entering the political arena.

Republican nominee Donald Trump isn’t the only presidential candidate who made the switch from the big screen to the ballot — Ronald Reagan began his career as an actor signed with Warner Bros. before becoming the nation’s 40th president.

“(Regardless of major or career choice), in the end the thing that defines most politicians is the desire to want to have a career in politics,” Ensley said.

While leading the country can be compared to a business affair, only one U.S. president, George W. Bush, completed a Master of Business Administration.

Common majors include economics, political science, international relations and sociology.

“It is very common for politicians to have a background in the law and public service, including the military,” Ensley said. “If people are interested in a career in politics, I think the most important point is to be involved in political life during elections and policymaking. Many different degrees and careers could lead to that, but it is more about making the decision to be involved.”

While all 43 men have served our country as the president, 32 of them also served in the country’s military.

Fifteen presidents have served in the Army/Army Reserves, nine have served in state militias, six have served in the Navy/Navy Reserves and two former presidents served in a Continental Army. 

More than half of of the country’s leaders have studied or worked in law. While 25 presidents have worked in the legal field, only Rutherford B. Hayes, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Obama attended law school.

“The study of law trains someone’s mind to think in a completely different way,” said Cameron Redic, senior history major and president of Kent State’s Pre-Law Club. “The analytical and argumentative skills that are developed in law school play a large role in the leadership ability of many politicians. They are trained to analyze an argument from multiple perspectives, prior to responding.”

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton graduated from Wellesley College with a degree in political science and went on to attend Yale Law School. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump studied economics at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. 

Jill Stein of the Green Party graduated from Harvard University with a concentration in social relations — a combined degree in anthropology, sociology and psychology. She went on to receive a medical degree from Harvard Medical School. Gary Johnson of the Libertarian party graduated from the University of New Mexico with a degree in political science.

Erin Zaranec is the entertainment editor, contact her at [email protected].