In terms of his fitness for the presidency, the fact that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker fell short of graduating from college is interesting but ultimately immaterial. What is relevant — and concerning — is how he talks about the issue.
Walker’s most extensive recent discussion of the matter of his college non-graduation (he dropped out of Marquette University in his senior year) came in an interview with Fox News’s Megyn Kelly. Walker was responding to comments by former Vermont governor Howard Dean (Yale ’71), who noted on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that Walker, if elected, would be the first president in decades without a college degree.
“The issue is how well educated is this guy, and that’s a problem if you’re running,” Dean said. “I worry about people being president of the United States not knowing much about the world and not knowing much about science.”
Granted, there was a sniffy, not-one-of-our-kind air to Dean’s comments. And while I share Dean’s worry about candidates coming to the presidency unprepared, I can say from personal experience (Yale ’79) that four years in New Haven do not necessarily guarantee knowing much about the world or science. (I did take something known as “Biology for Poets.”)
Still, Walker’s response to Dean’s provocation was similarly telling. “That’s the kind of elitist, government-knows-best, top-down approach from Washington we’ve heard for years,” he told Kelly. “We’ve had an Ivy League-trained lawyer in the White House for the last six years who was pretty good at reading off the teleprompter but done a pretty lousy job leading this country.”
Let’s pause and parse. Elitist? Sure. But what in the world does Walker’s incomplete college transcript have to do with one’s view of government, whether big or small, top-down or bottom-up?
Walker’s comments mash up a wad of unrelated resentments, blue-collar bristling over Ivy League snobbery combined with conservative opposition to Big Government. Maybe this conflation reflects canny politics — or maybe it suggests an undisciplined failure on Walker’s part to think through the issue.
Same with the double-dis of President Obama as both Harvard lawyer and teleprompter reader. I’ve always been fascinated by the conservative focus on Obama’s teleprompter habit. Say what you will about the president — he is more than capable of speaking off the cuff on any number of issues, at tedious length. But the problem is either that he’s a pointy-headed intellectual or that he’s a drooler incapable of communicating without an electronic prop. Which one is it, governor?
But that wasn’t all. Walker went on to cast himself as Wisconsin’s answer to Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. “I think there’s a lot of Americans out there that scratch their head and say, we have people who helped found Microsoft, Apple, Facebook. Plenty of other successful businesses, enterprises across this country did exactly the same sort of thing I did — that was have an opportunity to start a career, an opportunity to start a business senior year of college, went out and did it.”
Oh, come on. Gates and Zuckerberg dropping out of Harvard to launch innovative computer businesses is nothing like Walker leaving Marquette, with a 2.59 GPA and a whopping 34 credits short of graduation, to take a job with the local chapter of the American Red Cross.
Gates offers clear advice when asked about his unorthodox academic trajectory: Don’t do what I did. Walker’s message is more muddled. “I’ve got two sons in college. I hope they finish. I expect that,” he told Kelly. “So we value college for those who pursue that career, but in the end you don’t have to have that to be successful like many Americans have over the years.”
No! Walker’s point should be that, even though dropping out worked for him, in the modern economy a college degree is increasingly valuable. Economists at the New York Fed recently calculated that workers with a bachelor’s degree earn well over $1 million more during their working lives than do high school graduates, while those with associate’s degrees earn about $325,000 more. Despite soaring tuitions and declining wages, the net value of a college degree is now nearly $300,000 — up from $120,000 in the early 1970s and $80,000 in the early 1980s.
Walker’s lack of a college degree isn’t disqualifying in his quest for the presidency. His failure to understand the importance of that degree may be.