Many State Legislators Lack College Degrees
By WINNIE HU
About one in four of the nearly 7,400 elected representatives across the country do not possess a four-year college degree, according to a report released Sunday evening by The Chronicle of Higher Education in Washington. That compares with 6 percent of members of Congress, and 72 percent of adults nationwide, said the report, which is based primarily on the officials’ self-reported biographical information.
Arkansas has the least formally educated Statehouse, with 25 percent of its 135 legislators not having any college experience at all, compared with 8.7 percent of lawmakers nationwide. It was followed by state legislatures in Montana (20 percent), Kansas (16 percent), South Dakota (16 percent) and Arizona (16 percent).
“I don’t think it’s imperative that you have a college degree to be effective,” said Mike Fletcher, a retired state trooper elected to the Arkansas Senate last year. “I think the most important thing is to have common sense.”
Arkansas legislators are considered part-time workers — the pay is $15,869 annually — and their ranks also include lawyers, retired teachers, an accountant and a funeral home director, all of whom have college degrees, legislative aides said.
William Pound, the executive director of the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, said that no state had minimum educational standards for its legislators, though most had age requirements. He agreed with Mr. Fletcher that a degree was not as important to a lawmaker’s success as other factors, including an ability to deal with people and an understanding of the issues and the political process.
Of those legislators with college degrees, 80 percent went to public institutions, with most staying close to home, particularly in Louisiana, Michigan, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Texas.
Harvard University has the most alumni in statehouses — 140 — but as a whole, legislatures are not dominated by Ivy League graduates, according to the report. For instance, 1 out of every 189 state lawmakers went to Yale, compared with 1 out of every 30 members of Congress.
The most-educated legislature was in California, where 90 percent of lawmakers have at least a bachelor’s degree, followed by Virginia (89 percent), Nebraska (87 percent), New York (87 percent) and Texas (86 percent). New Jersey had the most legislators holding advanced degrees (59 percent). Nationally, 17 percent have law degrees.
Some legislatures, like New York State’s, have evolved from a part-time citizens’ body to a full-time job for most members.
“In New York, a college degree is an important rite of passage if you want to do public service,” said Russ Haven, longtime legislative counsel for the New York Public Interest Research Group, a nonpartisan advocacy group. “You don’t necessarily get wisdom and good judgment going to college, but it is helpful given the evolution of where the State Legislature is.”
Jeffrey J. Selingo, The Chronicle’s editor, said his staff had set out to look at the educational background of state legislators after hearing complaints from college administrators that they were losing state aid and scholarship money because legislators had never been to college themselves and did not understand higher education.
In fact, Mr. Selingo said, state legislators tended to be far more educated than their constituents, though even in statehouses with an abundance of college degrees, “that doesn’t necessarily translate into higher support for higher institutions.”