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Should Scott Walker Get His Degree? Should We Care?

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was asked–again–yesterday about whether his lack of a college degree is an impediment to his (presumptive) presidential hopes. He responded, according to CNN: “I don’t think I needed a college degree to be in the state assembly or to be county executive or to be governor. I don’t know about any other position. But in the end I think most people, for example [as] governor, judge me based on performance and what we’re able to do.”

That’s a fine answer, but it almost certainly won’t put an end to such questions. And that might just be a good thing–not for Walker, certainly, but because it’s a discussion quite relevant to the current higher education bubble and also because it can be revealing about those asking the question. Walker has already somewhat undermined his own defense by claiming he might go ahead and finish up his degree–a suggestion that is unobjectionable but which is difficult to separate from the current discussion about that degree and his presidential hopes.

It’s also logistically problematic to get that degree while running for reelection as governor and then for the Republican presidential nomination. Who would want to grade his papers under such circumstances? Only, one would think, people who shouldn’t be grading his papers. Taking classes in person would be a security nightmare, not to mention a media zoo making it a less than ideal environment for other students. Which raises the possibility, hinted at by Walker himself, that he would participate in a program like the University of Wisconsin’s “flexible option,” which would enable him to study on his own, remotely.

That might take the media circus off campus, but it wouldn’t cure all the headaches involved in Walker getting his degree while also a candidate for high office. The flexible option, for example, allows students to set their own pace. Were Walker’s pace noticeably slow, he would be subject to endless speculation about his intelligence. Were his pace suspiciously brisk, he would be accused of dodging his governing responsibilities or cheating.

So if he isn’t going to get his degree before running for president, does the debate over his education help or hinder his candidacy? That would depend a great deal on the extent to which the affliction of credentialism has infected the general public. You can sense the conversation shifting as a four-year degree becomes increasingly expensive and the federal government’s loan program continues to inflate the bubble, saddling students with ever more debt even as the job market constricts. But there is still a gulf in earning power between those with and those without a college degree, a fact which understandably causes people to hesitate to discourage Americans from attending college.

There is also a partisan aspect to this. Republicans are aware that the modern American university has become a stultifying atmosphere of intellectual conformity, and so it often confers a degree but not much of an education. (There are exceptions, of course.) Liberals think this actually is an education. Hence you find the strain of anti-elitist populism running stronger on the right than the left.

Last month, Charles Cooke found the liberal website PoliticusUSA using the term “college dropout” as a pejorative description of Walker. After Cooke pointed out just how silly this was, the headline was changed. But this week PoliticusUSA was at it again. On the topic of Walker considering finishing his degree, Sarah Jones wrote that “His lack of a bachelors degree is a selling point among Republican voters,” because “Nothing says winning like hating on education and claiming that you don’t need to know anything to be President.”

Jones was quick to add a caveat to this otherwise fiercely clownish statement by noting that “While it’s true that a bachelor’s degree is not required, nor does it determine in any sense the intelligence or lack thereof of the holder, it is important that a President has a solid grasp of history and civics.” In other words, while not everyone needs a college degree, Walker does, because he is in need of a liberal reprogramming. Jones helpfully adds: “This is a the (sic) Republican Party, where the more misinformed and uneducated one is or seems to be, the more they are liked.”

Jones isn’t wrong that Walker might relish the opportunity to portray such attacks as elite condescension. But it also indicates why a productive conversation about the state of American higher education and preparing American students for the modern job market is probably not, alas, in the cards for the next presidential election.



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