How Educated Are State Legislators?

Where America's 7,000 lawmakers went (or didn't go) to college—and whether it matters

June 12, 2011

It's a tension that dates to the founding of the country: In our representative democracy, should those who make the laws reflect the entire citizenry, or should they be chosen from an educated elite?

Or to put it in terms that matter in the pages of The Chronicle: Should lawmakers be people who have seen the inside of a college classroom?

In Federalist No. 10, James Madison debated the merits of republics and democracies, arguing that delegating government to elected representatives should "refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country." That sounds like a point for the ivory tower.

On the other hand, back in 1776, as the colonies were faced with creating new governments, John Adams wrote that the representative assembly "should be in miniature an exact portrait of the people at large. It should think, feel, reason, and act like them." Score one for the 70 percent of Americans without bachelor's degrees.

For the first time, The Chronicle has looked at where every state legislator in America went to college—or went at all. Starting with data from Project Vote Smart, a nonpartisan research organization, and expanding the scope with extensive research into more than 1,000 individual legislators, we set out to see which is the least-educated legislature in America, which is the most educated, where all 7,000-plus legislators went to college, and why it may or may not matter.

In doing so, we got a glimpse of the citizens who hold these seats and how they—so much more than Congress—reflect the average American experience.

Like most American students, the vast majority of state legislators went to public colleges. And most of them stayed close to home. In Louisiana, four out of five legislators never went to college outside the state. Across the nation, many lawmakers attended community colleges. Over all, about one in four don't have bachelor's degrees.

This is not an Ivy-educated, East Coast elite. Out of nearly 7,400 state lawmakers, just 39 went to Yale. There's the Utah representative who listed himself simply as "self-educated." And another who went to the "School of Life." We saw one representative who noted that she went to "gun school," and we found a dozen or so who told voters their college grade-point averages—even a lowly 2.0. Maybe that was just another way to make clear that these representatives are close to the people. See, it seems to say, we got C's, too.

Ultimately, in a country where just 28 percent of adults have bachelor's degrees, do we really want all of our state lawmakers to have sat in graduate-school seminars? Maybe it's good to have some like Kyle Jones, a 19-year-old New Hampshire lawmaker who manages the night shift at a Burger King.

And for all you college presidents who insist your state has the least-educated legislature in America, you can stop complaining—unless you're in Arkansas.

Representing Everybody

Earlier this year, Adam Brown, a political scientist at Brigham Young University, looked at the same Project Vote Smart data for a different research project. He didn't have a squad of interns, as we did, to fill in all the blanks, but even so we saw some of the same things—notably that state legislators have much more diverse educational backgrounds than members of Congress do.

First, almost every congressman has gone to college. Just four of the 535 have no higher education. Compared with state lawmakers, congressmen are more likely to have gone to college outside their home state, more likely to have gone to a private institution, and more likely to have an advanced degree. Three out of four U.S. senators have advanced degrees, and more than half of them are lawyers. In the House, 65 percent of members have advanced degrees.

Congressmen also don't describe themselves as "self-educated" or as attending the "school of life." Remember those 39 Yale grads in the state legislatures? That means about one out of 189 state lawmakers has a Yale degree. In Washington, the figure is one out of 30.

Mr. Brown was also the first to bring up the Madison-Adams tension we mentioned above. He seems to lean a little toward the Adams camp.

"Legislators aren't only supposed to represent the white-collar workers of the world," he wrote in an e-mail. "They need to represent everybody. Bearing in mind how many voters lack higher education, I'm not sure that a legislature could fairly represent a state's diversity if it didn't include people from diverse educational, economic, racial, religious, and vocational backgrounds."

Mr. Brown grew up in California, earned a bachelor's degree at BYU, and then went to graduate school at the University of California at San Diego. Did getting a Ph.D. there teach him something about public higher education, or about education in California? No, of course not, he said; he was just a student.

"Ideally, liberal education ought to help you to think and to reason and to understand data," he said. "And all of that, it seems, would be useful in setting policy. Would it help specifically with higher-ed policy? I don't know."

The Best-Educated Statehouse

Gary Moncrief has been studying state legislatures for decades. A political-science professor at Boise State University, Mr. Moncrief said, "When you're talking about state legislatures, they're all different animals. Really, they're barely in the same species."

In California, where nearly 90 percent of lawmakers have at least bachelor's degrees—the highest share in the nation—each of 80 assemblymen gets a $95,000 salary, has a full-time staff, and represents about 400,000 people. In New Hampshire, which has the largest lower house in the nation, each of the 400 members gets paid $200 every two years and represents about 3,300 people.

Depending on how "most educated" is defined, it could be argued that Virginia tops the nation, on the basis of its high percentage of lawmakers with both bachelor's and advanced degrees. The state ranks second-highest in both categories, right behind California for legislators with four-year degrees and on the heels of New Jersey for advanced degrees, with 89 percent and 58 percent, respectively.

In New Jersey, which has one of the 10 state legislatures generally defined as professional by political scientists, nearly 60 percent of the legislators have advanced degrees. New Jersey can't quite match the bachelor's-degree rates of California or Virginia, though—its rate is closer to 80 percent.­

Across the country, almost every statehouse is dominated by one alma mater. Usually it's the one you'd expect. In Indiana, 30 percent of the lawmakers went to Indiana University at Bloomington. In Louisiana, 28 percent attended Louisiana State University. What's surprising is the sometimes much smaller share of graduates from other public institutions in the same state.

Just half as many Indiana legislators attended Purdue University as went to the flagship. In Kentucky's statehouse, there are more University of Kentucky graduates than those from Western Kentucky University and the University of Louisville combined.

Regardless of where legislators went to college, the data show that most of them rarely crossed state lines to do so. Just a single Florida lawmaker went to the University of Georgia. In Indiana only one went to the University of Illinois. In Kentucky, not a single one attended the University of Tennessee.

Over all, 75 percent of the state legislators who have gone to college have attended at least one institution in their home state. Those deep regional ties may be expected when it comes to politics, but they're far from the norm in other fields.

The last four executive editors of The New York Times went to Pomona College, Birmingham-Southern College, Harvard University, and Columbia University.

Or look at the State University of New York. Each of the last four chancellors there earned their bachelor's degrees outside New York (at Ohio State University, the U.S. Naval Academy, Trinity College in Connecticut, and the University of Utah).

Meanwhile, in Albany, the last four speakers of the State Assembly all earned bachelor's degrees in the state: at Yeshiva University, then three at Brooklyn College.

Here in The Chronicle's newsroom, coincidentally, the last three editors have also gone to college in New York. Odder still, all in Ithaca: two at Cornell University and one at Ithaca College.

Loyalty and Reality

So does where a state lawmaker went to college matter?

Higher-ed leaders certainly complain, quietly, that it does. In California, UC folks have been known to say the legislators don't help out the system because they all went to Cal State. The Cal State folks have the exact opposite complaint. (The truth is that neither side is right—each can claim 40 alumni in the statehouse. )

But state legislators generally have too much on their plates to worry about individual colleges, whether they went there or not, said Alan Rosenthal, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University at New Brunswick.

"There's a lot of loyalty and tradition when it comes to state legislatures and where they went to school," he said. "But when you get right down to it, they've got to worry about K-12 education, about prisons, about taxes, about public-employee unions."

For state universities, he said, "one of the problems is that they can fend for themselves." And that means that when times are bad, higher education is a convenient place to find money. That will be the case no matter where or even whether lawmakers went to college.