Presidential Firsts! Presidential Pioneers in Education?

President Reagan played football during his days at Eureka College where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in Social Science and Economics.

Today’s post comes from Reagan Library Education Department staffer Brett Robert

Every year the Reagan Library offers the Film This! summer program for high school students.  Over the course of a week students shoot and edit original documentary films.  This year’s theme for Film This is “Presidential Firsts,” to register for this year’s program, click here for more information or copy and paste the following link into your browser:

So what are some notable Presidential Firsts?  Each of our nation’s 44 Presidents have led interesting and noteworthy lives.  As this is an education blog, today we’ll be looking at our Presidents’ educational achievements.

Portrait of John Adams painted by John Trumbull from the National Portrait Gallery.

John Adams, our nation’s second President from 1797-1801, was the first President to graduate from college, earning a Bachelor’s degree in 1755 from Harvard University.  He went on to study law, in what was the usual method at the time, as an apprentice under lawyer James Putnam.  Although he was the first attorney to serve as President of the United States, he did not attend law school. Read more about John Adams and his education at the Massachusetts Historical Society here.

Portrait of Ulysses S. Grant painted  by Ole Peter Hanses Balling from the National Portrait Gallery.

In some ways Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th President of the United States from 1869-1877, was made by his experiences at the United States Military Academy, also known as West Point.  Named Hiram Ulysses Grant at birth, the young future President began going by Ulysses S. Grant when he arrived at West Point and found that “Hiram” was nowhere to be found on their rolls, but “U.S. Grant” was registered.  Only two United States Presidents have attended West Point, with President Dwight Eisenhower having graduated from the nation’s first military academy in 1915, 72 years after Grant’s 1843 graduation.  PBS has a nice biography of Ulysses S. Grant here.


Photo of Jimmy Carter from the United States Naval Academy

In the grand tradition of the rivalry between the academies, the United States Naval Academy has also produced its own President of the United States.  Our 39th President, Jimmy Carter, is often famously remembered as a peanut farmer.  While President Carter did in fact spend years of his life farming, as had his father before him, as a young man he spent a decade in service in the United States Navy.  His Navy career began as a midshipman at the Academy in Annapolis, but Mr. Carter had begun his studies at Georgia Southwestern College and continued them at the Georgia Institute of Technology in order to qualify for the Academy.  In 1946 the future Commander-in-Chief graduated with a bachelor’s of science degree.  In the Navy his formidable intellectual skills led to his appointment in the early nuclear submarine program.  The United States Naval Academy proudly lists Mr. Carter as an alumnus and provides a biography on its official site.  Another excellent biography of Jimmy Carter can be found at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library’s  website.


This photo of President George W. Bush and First Lady Bush was taken in the White House Blue Room in 2002.

Several Presidents have obtained advanced degrees, but many may find it surprising that only very recently has a President with a M.B.A., Masters of Business Administration, degree served.  Our nation’s 43rd President serving as President from 2001-2009, George W. Bush studied history as an undergraduate at Yale, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1968.  He then served as a fighter pilot in the Air National Guard for several years, but went back to school in the early seventies to pursue his M.B.A. at Harvard University.  In 1975 Mr. Bush graduated from his master’s program and began working in the Texas oil industry.  In 1977 he put his studies to the test and established his own company, Arbusto Energy.  To read more about George W. Bush’s life, education, and political career, click here to see his biography at the George W. Bush Presidential Library.


Portrait of Rutherford B. Hayes by Eliphalet Andrews from the National Portrait Gallery.

Mr. Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, also earned a post-graduate degree from Harvard University.  Our current President since 2009, Mr. Obama, graduated from Harvard Law School in 1991, but he was not the first President of the United States to graduate from Harvard Law.  That honor, as well as the honor of being the first President to have earned a law degree, went to Rutherford B. Hayes.  Mr. Hayes graduated from Harvard Law in 1845, making him the first United States President to have graduated from Law School.  Rutherford Hayes went on to serve as the 19th President of the United States from 1877-1881, succeeding Ulysses S. Grant.  Franklin Pierce, the nation’s 14th President from  was the first President to attend law school, though he did not earn a degree after briefly attending Northampton Law School in Massachusetts for a semester.

Portrait of Woodrow Wilson by Harriet Stubbs Murphy from the National Portrait Gallery.

Only one United States President has earned a Doctor of Philosophy, Ph.D., degree.  Woodrow Wilson, the nation’s 28th President from 1913-1921, had the most extensive academic career of any United States President.  Not only did he graduate from Johns Hopkins University with a Ph.D. in History and Political Science in 1886, but Dr. Wilson later served as the President of Princeton University, where he had completed his undergrauate studies.  Dr. Wilson’s dissertation was titled Congressional Government, completed in 1885, and discussed the structure of government in the United States.  To learn more about President Wilson see the biography at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, or the biography at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum.

Still interested in more about the education of our Presidents?  Here are some additional resources:
School House to White House: Education of the Presidents – National Archives
The Miller Center at the University of Virginia – “The Miller Center is a nonpartisan institute that seeks to expand understanding of the presidency, policy, and political history, providing critical insights for the nation’s governance challenges.”
Presidential Libraries and Museums – a list of the National Archives and Records Administation’s Presidential Libraries and Museums
The Presidents at


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