As his Cabinet nominees were grilled by the Senate on the eve of his inauguration, President-elect Donald Trump declared that “We have by far the highest IQ of any Cabinet ever assembled!”
It's a grandiose assertion, one that's impossible to know. But by another metric, Trump's nominees fall short: academic degrees.
As a whole, Trump’s picks to lead the nation’s government agencies have fewer advanced degrees than any first-term Cabinet in at least 24 years.
A third of the nominees in Trump’s 15-member executive team hold only a bachelor’s degree. A quarter obtained up to a master’s degree, and 40 percent achieved a law or medical degree. No one has a doctorate. Compare that to President Obama’s original Cabinet, which conservatives derided for being stacked with intellectual elites: Only two members held a bachelor’s degree alone. A third stopped their educations at a master’s degree, and more than half held doctorates, medical or law degrees — often from the nation’s most prestigious universities.
Certainly, education comes in many of forms. For some of Trump's nominees, what they lack in classroom education has been made up for in relevant career experience. But there's something uniquely important about schooling — it's supposed to be America's great equalizer, the traditional gateway to the higher levels of society. At least for people of color.
In 2008, it wasn't lost on people that Obama's nominated Cabinet was both loaded with academic credentials and among the most racially and ethnically diverse in history. Six of the 15 nominees belonged to minority groups, all of whom held advanced degrees. Obama himself has a Harvard law degree and was the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. (Bill Clinton's first Cabinet included just as many minorities as Obama's, and it was even more educated, with all but one Cabinet member holding doctorate or law degrees.)
Similarly, observers today say it's no coincidence that Trump's proposed Cabinet is both the least academically credentialed and the least diverse in recent history. There are just two minorities among Trump's Cabinet nominees, an African American and an Asian American. Both of them have advanced degrees. (His would be the first presidential Cabinet since Ronald Reagan not to include a Latino member.)
Trump's Cabinet also happens to be the wealthiest in modern history — illustrating how it’s possible for some to reach the top without racking up college degrees. That level of success without years of advanced education is nearly impossible for black and brown Americans, say sociologists, economists and political scientists who study the link between race, education and achievement.
“Rarely will we find an example of an uncredentialed black person in an elite position,” said Darrick Hamilton, an economist at The New School in New York. “That black person is usually certainly qualified, if not overqualified, with regard to their education.”
The makeup of Trump’s Cabinet reflects a growing disdain in America for intellectual elitism and a distrust of scientific empiricism. Trump, the first president not to hold an advanced degree since George H.W. Bush, tapped into that sentiment in his unprecedented campaign by slamming the “Washington elite,” rallying against the “political correctness” often tied to academia, and misstating the facts on climate change and President Obama’s citizenship.
“As higher education has become more accessible to more diverse groups of people, the general population has become more distrustful of education and expertise,” said Tressie McMillan Cottom, a sociologist at Virginia Commonwealth University. “They think there must be something suspect about education, because how great can Harvard really be if someone like Barack Obama got there?”
“In this country, diversity has gotten tied up in the idea of a liberal academy,” she said. “The election of Trump is a critique and rebuke of that.”
Education level was one of the most predictive traits of how white Americans voted in the presidential election. Among white female voters, 61 percent of those without a college degree voted for Trump, compared to just 44 percent of those with a college degree, according to exit polls. There was a nearly identical gap among white men: 71 percent without higher education supported the president-elect compared to 53 percent of those with a degree. (College education had far less impact on how people of color voted.)
To be sure, stellar academic credentials don’t necessarily translate into quality Cabinet members. As David Halberstam documented in his 1972 book “The Best and the Brightest” about America’s intervention in Vietnam, President John F. Kennedy’s administration was populated by highly-educated staff connected to the most prestigious academic institutions, yet their disastrous policies plunged the nation into one of its worst military entanglements.
And yet, academia is often the sole path for minorities to substantially better their lot in life. Especially for black Americans, for whom it was impossible, for generations, to be born into wealth. Their only way to succeed was to overachieve.
It is standard for African Americans to be brought up with the understanding that they must be “twice as good” as their white counterparts. Some call it the Willie Mays phenomenon, referring to the black Hall of Fame baseball player whom recruiters often held up as the standard for other black — but not white — players.
Then there’s Chris Rock’s famous joke about living in a neighborhood with only three other African Americans — all world-famous entertainers: Mary J. Blige, Jay-Z, and Eddie Murphy. But his next door neighbor? A white dentist.
“He ain’t the best dentist in the world … he ain’t going to the Dental Hall of Fame … he don’t get plaques for getting rid of plaque. He’s just a yank-your-tooth-out dentist,” Rock said. “See, the black man gotta fly to get to something the white man can walk to!”
Rock has a point. Whites with just a high school diploma earn more than blacks who have attended some college, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And at every level of education, the white unemployment rate is about half the black unemployment rate.
“African Americans have to be overeducated to be underemployed,” McMillan Cottom said.
If a black American gets additional education, the extra degrees could improve his position relative to other blacks, but he cannot expect to close the wealth gap or unemployment gap with most white Americans, said William “Sandy” Darity, a professor of public policy, African and African American studies, and economics at Duke University.
“If you think about Cabinet positions as another facet of attaining a job, then we are seeing the same kind of discriminatory mechanisms operating there as well,” Darity said. “For black appointees to get into the mix, they have to have the highest level of credentials, and that is not the case for white appointees.”
Even if that education is irrelevant to the post to which one is nominated.
Ben Carson, Trump’s nominee to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development, is the only black Cabinet appointment. Carson, who grew up poor in Detroit, is an acclaimed neurosurgeon. But he has no experience in government or housing policy.
Trump's selection of Carson, McMillan Cottom said, makes it appear as if “literally being black is the only necessary qualification.”