How Educated Are State Legislators?

Jun 30, 2011

Should elected lawmakers truly represent us, or should they be smarter than us? That's a blunt way of asking a question that recently motivated 'The Chronicle' to investigate where the legislators of our 50 states got an education, or whether they did at all. Some of the results may strike you as fairly surprising.

View Popular Schools

By Eric Garneau


Crunch the Numbers

According to The Chronicle, 72% of adults in the United States don't have a bachelor's degree. Given that figure, we might reasonably assume that state legislators - those who most directly represent us in the lawmaking process - aren't necessarily among this country's educated elite. In fact recent findings suggest that in many cases state lawmakers come a lot closer to representing the 'average American' than federal Congressmen.

The Chronicle reports that 74.7% of state legislators have achieved at least a bachelor's degree from a college or university. It also reported that 88.8% have had 'some college' (though they haven't necessarily earned any credentials) and 40.8% have a master's or law degree, while only 4.2% hold a doctorate.

We can compare that to Congress, where 531 of its 535 members (99.3%) have had some college experience. Three out of four Congressmen have advanced degrees (those earned beyond a baccalaureate program of study). One in 30 is a Yale graduate - for state lawmakers, the figure's one in 189.

Celebrate Diversity

Outside of degree level, there are other significant differences between state and national legislators. State lawmakers are much more likely than Congressmen not to leave their home state for school. They attend public universities more frequently than their federal brethren, and are far more given to studying at community colleges. Humorously, one lawmaker told The Chronicle he or she attended the 'School of Life.' Possibly more troubling, another said she went to 'gun school.'

But again, it's worth noting that these distinctions represent the diversity found in American citizens. There are doctors, and there are fast food night shift managers (such as 19-year-old Kyle Jones, a New Hampshire lawmaker). In fact, between states there's even significant diversity in how legislatures are operated. California, for instance, pays their legislators $95,000 a year to represent about 400,000 people. New Hampshire gives their lawmakers a $100 annual stipend to stand in for 3,300 citizens. It's no wonder that some legislative positions attract different candidates than others.

In the end, higher education probably shouldn't be seen as a necessary qualification for lawmakers, whose primary job is to represent the people in their state. On the other hand, as political scientist Adam Brown explains to The Chronicle, 'liberal education ought to help you to think and to reason and to understand data… (which) would be useful in setting policy.' For those reasons, a college education could certainly assist state lawmakers, even if they don't need it.

Top Five States by Legislators' Bachelor's Degrees

  1. California (89.9%)
  2. Virginia (88.6%)
  3. Nebraska (87.3%)
  4. New York (86.8%)
  5. Texas (86.2%)

Bottom Five States by Legislators' Bachelor's Degrees

  1. New Hampshire (53.4%)
  2. Maine (58%)
  3. Delaware (59.7%)
  4. New Mexico (59.7%)
  5. Arkansas (60.4%)

What is the Washington State legislature doing to help veterans in this economy?

Next: View Schools

Popular Schools

The listings below may include sponsored content but are popular choices among our users.

Find your perfect school

What is your highest level of education?