Critics of Donald Trump have argued that his Cabinet is unusually lacking in academic credentials. It is not immediately obvious whether this is true because there is anecdotal evidence on both sides. On the one hand, six of his 15 Cabinet nominees have no degree beyond a bachelor’s, and only five of his nominees have degrees from Ivy League universities. On the other hand, he has nominated four people with medical degrees, compared to six in all previous Cabinets combined,1 and all of his nominees are college graduates, which we will later see is the exception rather than the norm. To seek a firm answer, we must therefore use numerical data to compare Trump’s Cabinet to those of his predecessors.
First, here is a table of Trump’s Cabinet nominees and their educational backgrounds:
To quantify the educational credentials of Cabinet members, we will use a point system, so we must make two decisions:
- Should each type of degree (bachelor’s, master’s, etc.) count the same, or should advanced degrees be weighted more heavily? While the latter choice may seem obvious, a case can also be made for the former because, for example, someone with a master’s presumably also has a bachelor’s and would receive points for both.2
- Should all universities count the same, or should a degree from a more prestigious university be weighted more heavily?
Each question has two alternatives, so there are four possible combinations, and we will try them all.
In the simplest system, any degree from any college is worth one point. If we weight advanced degrees more heavily, we will use the following point values: 0.5 for an associate’s, 1 for a bachelor’s, 2 for a master’s, 2 for a law degree (LL.B. or J.D.), and 3 for a doctorate (whether an academic doctorate, such as a Ph.D. or Ed.D., or a medical degree, such as an M.D. or D.M.D.)3 If we weight top universities more heavily, we will do this by doubling the points for any degree from a school in the top 20 on the 2016 U.S. News and World Report ranking of national universities.4 (Though any ranking of universities can be criticized, their list is the most well-known and seems generally reasonable, including all eight Ivy League schools as well as other top institutions such as MIT, Stanford, and the University of Chicago.)
Next, we reviewed the educational backgrounds of all initial Cabinets appointed since World War II; this covered 13 Presidents from Harry Truman through Donald Trump. We used each President’s initial line-up of Cabinet appointees, as opposed to all Cabinet members throughout a President’s tenure, because the former is the apples-to-apples comparison for Trump’s initial appointees. We consulted references to determine each Cabinet member’s degrees, coded them into a spreadsheet, and calculated the numbers under all four weighting systems. Because Cabinets vary in size, the relevant metric is the average number of points per Cabinet member, rather than total points.
Here are the results:
We are pleased to find that all four methods give roughly similar results, with most Presidents in similar spots in all four tables; this means that we are detecting a genuine pattern, not an artifact of a given weighting system, so there is no need to debate which method is best or nitpick their details. Trump is in ninth or tenth place on all four lists; because our sample contains 13 Presidents, this indicates that Trump’s Cabinet is below the post-WWII median in average educational attainment.
Having answered the question, we must also place this answer in context:
- This should not be taken to mean that his appointees are unqualified. For example, two of his appointees without advanced degrees are James Mattis and John F. Kelly. They are four-star generals who rose to the top of their profession, and our method does not capture their studies at non-degree-granting institutions such as the National War College.
- For breadth of advice, a President should appoint a Cabinet with diverse viewpoints, and this includes educational diversity. As a notional example, a Cabinet consisting entirely of Ivy League academics would be less helpful than one that also makes room for a governor who went to a state college, a business executive with an M.B.A., a general who attended a service academy, and a labor leader from a blue-collar background.
- Surprisingly, it is atypical that each of Trump’s Cabinet nominees has at least a bachelor’s degree. Of the 13 Presidents reviewed, only two others (Kennedy and Obama) did not, at some point in their terms, appoint at least one Cabinet member without a four-year degree,5 yet we do not recall a media outcry when this occurred.
- Degrees are not a prerequisite for success. The most critical juncture in modern history was arguably the end of World War II and the start of the Cold War, and the United States took a successful leadership role in that period even though the President (Truman) and his first two Secretaries of State (Edward Stettinius and James F. Byrnes) did not have college degrees.
- Quantitative analysis shows that the average education level of Trump’s Cabinet nominees is below the median education level of other initial Cabinets in the post-WWII era. Four scoring systems were used, and all of them support this conclusion.
- This should not be mistaken for evidence that Trump’s nominees are unqualified, whether individually or collectively.
- In the post-WWII era, almost all Presidents have appointed individual Cabinet members who were less educated than the least educated members of Trump’s Cabinet.
2. To see how a greater weighting for advanced degrees can skew the data, consider an example: Henry Kissinger, Donna Shalala, and ten high school dropouts would receive the same average score as a dozen people with bachelor’s degrees. With all due respect to Dr. Kissinger and Dr. Shalala, the latter would seem like a more educated Cabinet.
3. Some people might argue that a law degree should be weighted the same as a medical degree or an academic doctorate, but we find this unconvincing for three reasons. The first is duration: a law degree is normally a three-year program, whereas an M.D. is normally a three-year program followed by a mandatory multi-year residency, and the average time to complete a Ph.D. is more than eight years. The second is terminal status: the J.D. or LL.B. is not a terminal degree because it can be followed by an LL.M. degree, whereas there is no degree that follows an M.D. or Ph.D. The third is prerequisites: several Cabinet members had no bachelor’s degrees but earned law degrees as their first and only academic credentials, while this was not the case for any Cabinet member with a medical degree, and it would be unthinkable for a Ph.D. We do, however, give 3 points for a J.S.D. because it is an academic doctorate in the field of law.
4. At the time of this analysis, the U.S. News and World Report top 20 list includes 22 schools because of a three-way tie for 20th place. The list is as follows: Brown University, California Institute of Technology, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Duke University, Emory University, Georgetown University, Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northwestern University, Princeton University, Rice University, Stanford University, University of California at Berkeley, University of Chicago, University of Notre Dame, University of Pennsylvania, Vanderbilt University, Washington University in St. Louis, and Yale University. Although the U.S. News and World Report list is limited to U.S. schools, we also awarded double points for degrees from Oxford University, the only top-tier school outside the United States that was attended by any of the Cabinet members we reviewed.
When this article was posted on January 23, 2017, it included Andrew Puzder, Trump’s initial nominee as Secretary of Labor; Puzder had a B.S. from Cleveland State University and a J.D. from Washington University in St. Louis. The article was updated after Puzder withdrew and, on February 16, 2017, Trump nominated Alexander Acosta. Those events resulted in five changes to the article: 1) the table of Trump Cabinet nominees removed Puzder and added Acosta; 2) in the introductory paragraph, the number of Trump nominees with Ivy League degrees increased from four to five; 3) in the third numerical table (top schools count more), the score for Trump’s Cabinet increased from 2.07 to 2.13; 4) in the fourth numerical table (higher degrees count more, top schools count more), the score for Trump’s Cabinet increased from 3.20 to 3.27; and 5) sources for Acosta’s education were added to the Sources section. These updates did not change Trump’s ranking within any of the tables, nor did they change the article’s conclusions.
The principal source was “The United States Executive Branch: A Biographical Directory of Heads of State and Cabinet Officials,” edited by Robert Sobel and David B. Sicilia (2003). For Cabinet members from 2003 onward, the principal source was Marquis “Who’s Who in America” (2014). (In decades of research, we have found “Who’s Who in America” to be a reliable source, though some observers note that its entries are not independently fact-checked. We therefore used independent sources to recheck the degrees of several Cabinet members, and no discrepancies were found.) For the most recent Cabinet appointees, who were not found in Sobel or Marquis, and for clarifying details on certain other Cabinet members, we used the following additional sources:
Acosta, Alexander: https://today.law.harvard.edu/alexander-acosta-94-nominated-secretary-labor/ [all information except what type of bachelor’s degree he received]; http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2017/02/16/who-is-labor-secretary-pick-alexander-acosta.html [his bachelor’s degree was in economics]; http://economics.harvard.edu/files/economics/files/undergradguide_12.pdf [a bachelor’s degree in economics from Harvard is an A.B.]
Bergland, Bob: http://www.minnesotaalumni.org/s/1118/content.aspx?sid=1118&gid=1&pgid=1748 [confirms his 1949 degree was an A.A.]
Burwell, Sylvia: http://www.businessinsider.com/sylvia-burwell-2014-4
Connally, John B.: http://www.nytimes.com/1993/06/16/us/john-connally-of-texas-a-power-in-2-political-parties-dies-at-76.html?pagewanted=all [bachelor’s degree was omitted from Sobel]
Duncan, Charles W.: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1979/07/21/charles-duncan-amiable-loyalist-longtime-manager/586d0b69-3e07-47c2-9aad-a03228a0b297/?utm_term=.8cd6dee96eb4 [school was omitted from Sobel]
Dunlop, John T.: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/10/04/us/john-dunlop-89-dies-labor-expert-served-11-presidents.html [UC campus (Berkeley) was omitted from Sobel]
Gardner, John W.: https://igs.berkeley.edu/student-learning/fellowships/john-gardner-fellowship/profile-of-john-w-gardner [UC campus (Berkeley) was omitted from Sobel]
Humphrey, George M.: http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/w/George_M._Humphrey [only degree, from University of Michigan in 1912, was a law degree]
Johnson, Jeh: https://www.k-state.edu/landon/speakers/jeh-johnson/
Kennedy, David M.: https://www.finance.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Kennedy.pdf [His official Cabinet nomination biography acknowledges his studies at the Stonier School of Banking, but the only three non-honorary degrees listed are from Weber (B.A.) and GWU (M.A., LL.B.), so we can conclude Stonier didn’t grant him a degree. Stonier does not appear to have been a degree-granting institution.]
Mattis, James: https://www.britannica.com/biography/James-Mattis
Puzder, Andrew: http://www.bloomberg.com/research/stocks/private/person.asp?personId=282515&privcapId=128294349; http://www.latimes.com/business/hollywood/la-fi-ct-andy-puzder-music-past-20161209-story.html; https://www.csuohio.edu/news/andrew-puzder-named-csu%E2%80%99s-2016-commencement-speaker
Regan, Donald: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/06/11/us/donald-regan-84-financier-and-top-reagan-aide-dies.html [school was omitted from Sobel]
Udall, Stewart: http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=u000002 [attended Eastern Arizona Junior College for only one year, and no indication that this led to an A.A.; also no indication of bachelor’s; both of these agree with Sobel]
Volpe, John: https://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2014/10/18/wentworth-educating-engineers-who-form-backbone-innovation-economy/pkulWnWVSKzO9NaLotxx7M/story.html [Wentworth Institute began granting associate’s degrees in 1957 and bachelor’s degrees in 1970, so Volpe’s graduation from an architectural construction program in 1930 did not constitute an A.A.]
Wilson, Charles E.: https://www.cmu.edu/ira/factbook/pdf/facts2016/history-and-organization.pdf [Carnegie Institute of Technology began granting four-year degrees in 1912, three years after Wilson graduated]
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