Lack of a Degree Is No Problem for Members

Posted December 12, 2008 at 3:58pm

Rep.-elect Harry Teague (D-N.M.) went to work on an oil rig at the age of 17 for $1.50 an hour. He had to drop out of high school and become his family’s primary wage earner to take care of his ill parents. With hard work and good fortune, he eventually worked his way up through the ranks to build a company that employs 250 people.

Teague, 59, ran for Congress this year because he wanted to work to represent those employees and working families whom he felt were ignored by his predecessors. His background makes him uniquely suited to address the needs of those constituents, many of whom work in mines or on farms, Teague said.

“I felt like they needed to be represented by someone who had been where they had been and done what they were doing,” he said.

Teague is one of two incoming Members without a four-year bachelor’s degree. The other is Rep-elect Bill Posey (R-Fla.), who has a two-year associate’s degree. Posey went to work right after graduating high school and said he expects his background to provide an important perspective while dealing with the troubling economic times.

In total, the 111th Congress will have 31 Members without degrees. Five Members without college degrees — Reps. John Peterson (R-Pa.), Thelma Drake (R-Va.), Jon Porter (R-Nev.), Terry Everett (R-Ala.) and Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.) — are departing at the end of this Congress.

Deputy House Historian Fred Beuttler said he expects the number of Members without degrees to continue shrinking.

The increase of Members with bachelor’s degrees follows the trends of education growth in the general population. There was a significant increase when the generation who grew up with the GI bill — which allowed for returning World War II veterans to access education — came to Congress.

The number has stayed around the same level for the past few Congresses, only decreasing by a few Members in the past couple of years. There were 41 Members without bachelor’s degrees in the 105th Congress and 34 in the 110th Congress.

Beuttler said he doubts the number will ever get to zero, but the reduction trend will persist. “It will shrink a little bit as the needs of a high-tech economy requires at least some mastery of college-level skills,” he said.

It’s a situation that some in Congress feel shuts out the working class. “If we had more Members of Congress that would come from the working class, I think we would actually see a different approach in how we deal with real-life issues here in Washington,” said Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine). “All too often people tend to forget where they came from and not really focus on what’s important to the working people here in this country.”

Michaud, who only has a high school diploma, worked at a paper mill for more than 28 years before being elected to Congress.

When he first decided to run for office in 2000, Michaud said he hoped to add diversity to a Congress that had a large proportion of lawyers and professional politicians. In the 110th Congress, there were 179 Members of the House and 56 Senators with law degrees. Michaud, hoping to provide a voice to blue-collar workers, helped establish a Congressional Labor and Working Families Caucus.

It’s a perspective that he has found beneficial and has informed much of his lawmaking. For instance, Michaud was able to refute testimony by a truck driver at a hearing earlier this year on the issue of weight limits for trucks. Through his experience loading trucks at the mill, Michaud found flaws in the argument against increasing them.

“That’s something that real-life experience was able to make a difference,” he said.

Rep. Phil Hare’s (D-Ill.) own experiences have helped him address some top concerns for Americans during the economic decline. His parents lost a house because of foreclosure when he was a kid.

“That’s a big learning experience. That’s something you can’t really understand until it happens to you,” he said. “There’s no amount of college in the world that can prepare you for what that can do to a family.”

Fair trade is also an important issue to Hare following his experience working in a factory. The industry has been “decimated by bad trade deals,” he said. Hare is also one of the few Members of Congress who are dues-paying union members.

Hare spent two years at community college and said he would love to go back to school in the future. Both of his children have master’s degrees, he said.

But a high IQ doesn’t automatically make someone a good Member of Congress, he added. The ability and willingness to look out for other people is far more critical.

Michaud said he knows some Members of Congress with plenty of degrees plastered on their walls but with no ability to connect with constituents. Michaud proudly displays a picture of his former place of employment — the paper mill — in his Congressional office.

Most of the lawmakers without degrees stressed the importance of education and a desire to complete a degree themselves, but said a good balance between education and experience is optimal.

“I think that’s a perfect blend,” Rep. Robert Brady (D-Pa.) said. “You’ve got to get out there and see what the real world is like.”

Brady couldn’t afford college when he graduated from high school and had to immediately start working. He received his education on the job, he said. But a lack of higher education hasn’t stopped him from teaching organizational dynamics for the past 13 years at the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school. His background has never inhibited his ability to get any jobs he sought, he said.

Gender and race remained larger problems than education for Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.). Napolitano has been mistaken for a secretary at events she was invited to as a keynote speaker.

Napolitano was married at 18 and worried more about raising her children than education. The experience of budgeting, being a parent and working since the age of 12 helped her cultivate skills that she now uses regularly in Congress.

The background is also one she uses to inspire kids. “When I talk to youngsters in school, I say, ‘If me, with a high school education can achieve what I have, think about what you can do with an education.’”

Though Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) attended but didn’t graduate college, she remains a fierce advocate for access to post-secondary education and financial assistance as a member of the House Education and Labor Committee.

All of these life experiences may have worked for these Members, but it’s still difficult to get a job in government policy without one, said Lily Whiteman, author of “How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job.”

“It’s a pretty tough sell,” she said, particularly for those with only a high school diploma. Some internships are available to college students who are in the middle of degree programs that could help them get a foot in the door, but some higher education is necessary for that path.

However, there are some exceptions when applicants have specialized experience.

For instance, Whiteman said she has encountered people with only high school degrees in senior positions in the Mine Safety and Health Administration at the Department of Labor. They had specialized knowledge about mining. Additionally, those with a military background may be attractive for work on defense issues.

There may be other policy areas where people have worked their way up in a field to achieve policy positions, but Whiteman said they are in the minority.

Nevertheless, Teague believes the diversity of the country should be reflected on Capitol Hill. “It’s what our forefathers intended for it to be,” he said. “We don’t all need to be people like me, we don’t need to all be lawyers, we don’t need to all be truck drivers or doctors — we need to be a broad representation of the public.”