The most powerful undergrad in America? Rep. Kristi Noem, who just completed coursework for a political science degree and will officially graduate from South Dakota State University in May.
Noem, 40, dropped out of college when she was 22 to run the family farm after her father died. She took courses here and there but life — marriage, kids, business, politics — kept her from finishing until now.
How? “I did a lot of homework on flights,” she told us Wednesday. The freshman Republican juggled a full course load and her new congressional duties last spring, then finished up her classes this fall. Her staff only scheduled her at must-attend events at night and often heard her protest, “I have to work on this paper! It’s due tomorrow!” Noem was studying the Eastern European financial crisis while debating the U.S. debt ceiling. “I think it really benefited me as a person intellectually.”
Her lack of a degree was briefly an issue in 2010 when she ran against Georgetown grad Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, but never again once she came to Washington. According to the Congressional Research Service’s profile of the 112th Congress, all but one senator (Alaska’s Mark Begich, who went into his family’s business instead) have a college diploma; in the House, 26 representatives never completed a degree. Thirty years ago, at least 48 reps and seven senators were only high school grads.
Not that college is required for politics: Barry Goldwater did just fine without it; Robert Byrd never earned a bachelor’s, but graduated from law school after 10 years of night classes while in Congress. Sonny Bono? A high school dropout, nothing but that degree from Igot U.
Noem told us she’s seriously thinking of pursuing a masters — just not right now. Her final transcript just came (3.6 GPA) and she’ll be the senior speaker at May’s commencement (she also keynoted at the University of South Dakota‘s winter graduation last month.) And with that free time on flights now? “I’ve been reading books like crazy.”