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Do State Legislators Need a College Degree?

Almost 25 percent of state legislators don't have a bachelor's degree. Does America need lawmakers with more schooling?

Does your state legislator have a college degree? Maybe not. A new report from The Chronicle of Higher Education shows that one in four of the nearly 7,400 state legislators nationally lack bachelor's degrees. On the one hand, there's no requirement that any member of public office have a college degree, but at a time when job seekers often need a diploma to be considered for an administrative assistant position, should we expect our lawmakers to have more schooling?

The Chronicle began researching legislators' academic backgrounds after hearing complaints from the higher education community that lawmakers were slashing budgets because they hadn't attended college and so didn't understand its value. Data from Project Vote Smart, a nonpartisan research group, reveals that California has the most educated legislature. Of 120 state representatives, 89.9 percent have earned a bachelor's degree or higher. Virgina came in a close second with 88.6 percent of lawmakers having a degree. On the other end of the spectrum, only 60.4 percent of Arkansas' legislators have a degree and New Mexico and Delaware tied for second lowest with 59.7 percent.

The number of state lawmakers with college degrees is significantly less than members of Congress. According to the Congressional Research Service, 92 percent of House members and 99 percent of Senate members have at least a bachelor's degree. But Brigham Young University political scientist Adam Brown told The Chronicle that this lack of college degrees at the state level isn't necessarily a bad thing. "Legislators aren't only supposed to represent the white-collar workers of the world," said Brown. "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." Indeed, according to the U.S. Census Bureau only 30 percent of adults 25 years or older have a college degree.

We all know that common sense doesn't come with a diploma. And having more educated lawmakers isn't a panacea: The California state legislature is famously dysfunctional. But at a time when state legislators are required to understand bills that are hundreds of pages long and make critical and complex policy decisions, a bachelor's degree certainly can't hurt.

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