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Should There Be a Minimum Education Level for Politicians?

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

In this presidential election year, education is a hot topic. Rarely, however is the actual education of political candidates themselves a topic of discussion. While everyone knows that President Obama is a graduate of Columbia and Harvard Law School, and Mitt Romney attended Stanford briefly, and eventually graduated from BYU and Harvard Law, do we really know much about those representing us at the state level and crafting our educational policies?

The Chronicle has an interesting interactive map available that allows visitors to the site to see what level of education their state’s legislators actually have. The results are surprising and make one wonder how some of these individuals are qualified not only to hold public office, but to make decisions that affect education? Here is a look at some of the surprising data from the map and the effects that our politicians’ education level might have on education.

(Chronicle.com)

Some Surprising Statistics
No need to depress my readers immediately, so here is the good news. There are no states in which fewer than 50% of legislators have less than a BA. However, in the bottom five states – Arkansas, New Mexico, Delaware, Maine, and New Hampshire – between 40 and 47 percent don’t have the degree that I would consider the minimum qualification for a politician in the United States.

While it would seem impossible for an elected official to have absolutely no college education at all, it is not. The good news is that there are 12-13 states in which fewer than five percent of politicians have not attended college, including all of the states in what many consider to be the educationally backward Deep South (Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina). In contrast however, there are 16 states in which more than 10% of politicians have not attended college at all. The winners in this inauspicious category are Montana (20%) and Arkansas (24.6%).

While the correlation is not perfect, comparing data from this map with that from a September 2012 report from the Center for American Progress, The Stealth Inequalities of School Funding: How State and Local School Finance Systems Perpetuate Inequitable Student Spending reveals some trends regarding the ways in which regressive education funding policies match up with politicians’ levels of education. The most obvious instance is New Hampshire, which has the most regressive education funding policies in the country (students with greater need receive less funding), has 10.2 percent of its state legislators with no college education, and overall has the worst percentage of politicians with at least a BA (53.4%). Nevada also finds itself near the top of both lists (15.6% no college and second worst for regressive funding practices). There almost certainly is some relationship between the educational level of politicians and the effect that it has on education funding and education in general.

How Does a College Education Qualify Someone to be a Politician?
While the implication of this post thus far may seem to be that uneducated politicians are ruining our educational system, that is not the intent. There are certainly some legislators out there with a lifetime of experience, who did not attend college, and who do an outstanding job in most aspects of their political lives. But there must be inherent value in higher education that helps someone to understand the system and make better informed decisions about what policies will benefit it. Here are a few ways in which attending college might help politicians better support it in their work.

  • Appreciation – While it is possible to appreciate something, whether art or education, without specific knowledge of the craft, it helps to have an insider’s perspective on the time, effort, and underlying theory that contributed to the creation of what you are looking at.
  • Broader Perspective – Not every college program facilitates a connection to a broader, global perspective, but that is one of the primary missions of higher education. In addition to this global point of view, politicians without any university education have likely missed out on civics, history, philosophy, and several other subjects that have, since the time of the Ancient Greeks, helped to make well-rounded statesmen.
  • Insight into the system – Every student who has attended an institution of higher learning has insights into the system that those who have not cannot.  Simply being exposed to the extent of the administration required to make a college function on a daily basis gives those who have participated in higher education a basic understanding of the complexity of the system.
  • Connection to educators – Whether we choose to maintain relationships with our instructors after we graduate or not, those who attend a university forge connections with those teaching them on a daily basis. They engage in conversations, hear stories about these people’s life experiences, gain valuable insight into the ways that those with the most education think and act, and get a feel for the process of educational inquiry.

In addition to these more philosophical insights gained from attending a college or university, those with some degree of higher education have gained technical skills, knowledge of specialized fields, and communication skills that ultimately make them more effective in their roles as politicians.

Minimum Standards Should Apply
Should every American politician be required to attend a college or university, or even have a formal degree? As a bachelor’s or even master’s degree increasingly becomes the minimum standard for entry into most jobs it probably makes sense that politicians be held to the same standards. As the demographic makeup of our legislature changes over time, this trend will probably swing in favor of a more highly educated electorate.  In the interim, however, it might make sense to mandate some minimum education requirements for those that we expect to represent our interests in government – after all, Plato thought this was a reasonable idea. For any interested in pursuing a career in politics and supporting the education system in the way that it should be as our most important national resource, the following should be required courses.

  • History of American Education – Even though the American education system is a relative baby by global standards, it nonetheless has a rich and varied history. Studying the intent with which it was created, the challenges it has faced, and the ensuing changes it has undergone, provides insight into the way it works and where it is going, and the success it has experienced.
  • Education Policy – Coming to the table to make decisions about policies that will affect education without knowledge of the theory behind the policies that govern the system, makes little sense at all. Delving into a study of how political decisions alter the system should be a prerequisite for anyone who has a say in shaping educational policy.
  • Systems Design of Education – Legislators are, to some extent, designing the educational systems that they are stewards for. There is a specific discipline devoted to the theory and practice of educational systems design that would benefits those responsible for contributing to that creative process. With knowledge of this field, politicians might find themselves surprised by some of the possibilities available for education that they may never have considered.

There are continuing education requirements for most teachers that have been put in place by politicians to guarantee that our educators stay up-to-date on their craft. Perhaps it is time for these same politicians to take a page out of their own book and apply the same standards to doing their jobs that they expect of educators. No one would allow a teacher to step into a classroom without a college degree, or to not stay current in their field. Why then is it ok for politicians to be any less educated or accountable?