To What Degree Does College Matter?

Usually, presidential candidates hail from an incestuous web of elite universities–Yale and Harvard, predominant among them. Wisconsin Governor, Scott Walker, however, wishes to become president of the United States without that distinction. In fact, Walker dropped out of college, never earning a bachelor’s degree (So did Rand Paul, by the way). For some, Walker’s missing sheepskin disqualifies him for serious consideration in the presidential race. That view is wrong.

Susan Milligan writes a piece in U.S. News and World Report that reflects some of the apprehension felt about potentially nominating, and even electing, the degree-less Governor Walker. Chidike Okeem, a conservative blogger, more vehemently rejects Walker’s candidacy in light of his academic deficiency. He calls the notion “beyond absurdity,” and writes that conservatives who dismiss Walker’s degree-critics as elitists “show the embarrassing way in which anti-intellectualism is treated as a sought-after virtue within mainstream conservatism.”

In truth, Milligan, Okeem; and others who believe that Walker does not deserve serious consideration as a presidential candidate without a college degree; make an erroneous assumption based on a misunderstanding of what a college degree communicates. (Hint: college degrees make no claims upon a graduate’s intelligence or ability to perform work outside of the classroom.)

Milligan argues that the baccalaureate degree serves as evidence that one is qualified to work.

“Would we choose long-distance runners for the U.S. Olympic team who couldn’t run faster than an 11-minute mile, just to show that the team is reflective of the American populace as a whole,” she writes.

Clearly, the answer to her question is “no.” But her analogy fails because there is little (if any) correlation between finishing college and running the free world. A more appropriate formulation of Milligan’s question would be: “Would we choose long-distance runners for the U.S. Olympic team who run as fast as everyone else on the team, but do so barefoot?” I’d imagine that the answer to that question is, “Maybe.” So, too, should be the appropriate approach to Walker’s (hypothetical) candidacy.

Okeem’s argument particularly resonates with me because I worry about anti-intellectualism infecting the conservative movement.

Okeem asks, “Are those who suggest that college dropouts should be routinely considered for the office of President…arguing that the presidency is less tasking or important than the plurality of jobs listed on Craigslist that specify only holders of a baccalaureate degree should apply?”

Again, the answer is no. But Okeem’s question demonstrates a lack of understanding about why many employers require degrees of their applicants. Clarifying that distinction requires me to lean on the work of Dr. William Irons, a leading social anthropologist, and one of the professors I studied under at Northwestern University (where I did graduate, by the way).

Irons categorizes weddings, military boot camps, and college degrees as Hard to Fake Signals of Commitment (HFSC). HFSC demonstrate a dedication “to behave in a particular way even if it is contrary to self-interest.” In other words, employers do not know what level of commitment an applicant will display toward an organization, but they do know that an applicant’s commitment to an organization is easy to fake, as one may simply state that he is committed to show up and perform his assigned duties satisfactorily. Talk is cheap. A word can be easily broken. But a college degree signals to an employer that an applicant was willing to spend time, money, and mental energy–often foregoing immediate gratification–in order to attain a certificate that may prove beneficial in the future. A college degree, in the amount of energy required to attain it, proves a much better indicator of the level of an applicant’s commitment.

Therefore, any criticism about Walker’s lack of a college degree can only be useful if it questions Walker’s sense of commitment. Arguing, as some have, that Walker’s quitting college with so few credits needed to graduate indicates a lack of commitment, is a point worthy of debate–a point to which I counter by saying that while the education gained in college can be enriching and lead to a more complete understanding of a range of topics, what a graduate learns in college–even if he or she takes certain classes and earns good grades–cannot be presumed. We all know political science majors who do not understand Hobbes’ Leviathan, Plato’s Republic, or Rousseau’s Social Contract; whether they read these pieces or not.

That said, a college degree serves to communicate a HFSC. Through his work as a governor, his clear understanding of policymaking and politics, and his many successful years of public service, Walker has demonstrated his commitment to performing dutifully the role of an executive. His record makes up for his missing degree.