Can You Guess the College Degrees of Our First Ladies?

by Genevieve Carlton

Updated September 1, 2022 • 6 min read is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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How well do you know your first ladies of the United States?

Maybe you can spout off a few facts about Martha Washington and Mary Todd Lincoln, but what about first ladies and their college degrees?

Higher education was uncommon for most women before the mid-20th century. Some of our most respected first ladies — including Eleanor Roosevelt, the first chairperson of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights — never attended college. Only a handful of first ladies ever earned a formal degree, and even fewer hold graduate degrees.

Can you guess the first lady based on their college degree?

She earned degrees from two Ivy League schools before marrying a community organizer and becoming first lady.

Michelle Obama graduated from Chicago's first magnet school and enrolled at Princeton University in 1981. At Princeton, Michelle studied sociology and African American Studies. After graduating with honors, she attended Harvard Law School and participated in the Black Law Students Association. Michelle also worked for the Chicago Mayor's Office and the University of Chicago before becoming first lady.

Before she was a glamorous, trend-setting first lady, she spent a year abroad at the Sorbonne in Paris.

Before she became first lady, Jackie Kennedy enrolled at Vassar College to study French, literature, and history. College was an important time in Jackie Kennedy's life. After spending her junior year studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, Jackie said, "I loved it more than any year of my life." For her senior year, Jackie transferred to George Washington University, where she earned a degree in French literature.

She was the first first lady to earn a graduate degree -- from one of the top law schools in the country.

Hillary Clinton earned a degree in political science at Wellesley College and became the college's first student commencement speaker. As a senior, she applied to prestigious law schools and earned a spot at Harvard and Yale. When a Harvard law professor told Hillary, "We don't need any more women at Harvard," she went to Yale. After serving as first lady, Hillary became the first female presidential nominee for a major party.

She was a theater major at Smith College before heading to Hollywood and marrying an actor -- who became president.

Nancy Reagan attended Smith College in the 1940s, where she majored in drama. The Massachusetts liberal arts college appealed to Nancy, who had an interest in acting from a young age. Nancy graduated in 1943 and took a job working in a Chicago department store before she snagged a role on Broadway and then made the jump to film, where she met an actor named Ronald Reagan. Three decades later, Nancy became first lady.

She attended the University of Southern California and became a teacher before meeting her future husband -- a three-time presidential nominee -- on stage.

Pat Nixon grew up in Southern California and attended Fullerton Junior College before transferring to the University of Southern California. In 1937, Pat graduated with a bachelor's in merchandising and a teaching certificate. While working her way through school, Pat took jobs in the cafeteria, the library, and in a department store. She also worked as a movie extra. Pat was teaching high school and acting in community theater plays when she met Richard Nixon.

She trained as a teacher and librarian in Texas before marrying into a prominent political family.

Laura Bush grew up in Midlands, Texas, and stayed close to home for college. She attended Southern Methodist University to earn a bachelor's degree in elementary education and then enrolled in a master's program at the University of Texas at Austin. At UT Austin, Laura earned a master's in library science. She put her training to work as a teacher and school librarian before meeting George W. Bush at a backyard barbeque, eventually becoming first lady.

She was the first first lady to earn a four-year degree -- all the way back in 1902.

In 1898, Grace Coolidge enrolled at the University of Vermont. The future first lady lived with her aunt and a friend while she commuted to Burlington from Haverhill, Massachusetts. Grace made an impression on campus, where she appeared in Shakespeare plays, performed in the glee club, and was a finalist for a public speaking award. She also helped found the Pi Beta Phi sorority as an undergraduate. After earning a degree in teaching, Grace enrolled at the Clarke School for the Deaf to train as a teacher for deaf students.

This Texan drove to college in a Buick and studied journalism before marrying a future Speaker of the House and President.

Lady Bird Johnson grew up in Dallas, where she intentionally graduated third in her high school class so she wouldn't have to speak at graduation. For college, Lady Bird drove 200 miles south in a Buick to attend the University of Texas at Austin. She earned a bachelor's degree in history and journalism with plans to become a newspaper reporter. Two months after meeting Lyndon Baines Johnson, the couple married, and Lady Bird went on to become first lady.

She studied modern dance in college before becoming first lady and founding a center for people recovering from addiction.

Betty Ford attended Bennington College in Vermont, where she studied modern dance. As an undergraduate, Betty worked with the famous choreographer Martha Graham. Betty said that Graham "more than anyone else...shaped my life." Soon, Betty joined Graham's dance troupe in New York City, where she danced and modeled. Betty later taught dance to children with disabilities and married Gerald Ford.

She was the first woman to earn a bachelor's degree in geology at Stanford -- where she met her husband, who became a one-term president.

Lou Hoover attended Stanford University in the 1890s. At the time, she was the only woman in the geology department. Lou's love of geology introduced her to Herbert Hoover, who also earned a geology degree at Stanford. The couple waited to marry until after Lou earned her bachelor's degree. As first lady, Lou showed off her language skills by speaking to the President in Chinese when she didn't want eavesdroppers listening in on their conversations.

She was high school valedictorian before marrying her Georgia sweetheart and completing her degree through distance learning.

Rosalynn Carter enrolled at Georgia Southwestern College, a public junior college near her hometown of Plains, Georgia, but left Georgia when she married a young naval cadet named Jimmy Carter. The pair moved to Virginia because of Jimmy's service. Rosalynn continued to study as a young mother, completing home study programs in the liberal arts.

She was captain of the soccer team at Smith College before she dropped out of school to marry a bomber pilot.

Barbara Bush enrolled at Smith College in 1943. A natural athlete, Barbara became the captain of the freshman soccer team at Smith. But Barbara's personal life overshadowed her academic pursuits: In 1944, her fiancé, George Bush, nearly died when his plane was shot down. When George returned to the U.S., Barbara left Smith so the two could marry. As first lady, Barbara Bush dedicated herself to eliminating illiteracy.

This first lady dropped out of college to pursue her career overseas.

Melania Trump was born in Yugoslavia to a car dealer and a clothing designer. Melania attended the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, balancing her academic pursuits with a modeling career. After modeling in Milan, London, and Paris, Melania left college and eventually moved to New York, where she met Donald Trump at a fashion party. Melania is the only naturalized citizen to become first lady.

She's the first first lady with a doctorate -- and she spent years in the classroom before becoming first lady.

Jill Biden earned her doctorate in education from the University of Delaware when she was 55. It was Jill's fourth degree: She also holds a bachelor's in English, a master's in reading education, and a master's in English. When Jill successfully defended her dissertation, her husband, Joe Biden, proudly displayed a sign on their law that read: "Dr. and Senator Biden live here." As second lady, Jill Biden continued to teach at Northern Virginia Community College -- a role she plans to continue while first lady.

Portrait of

Genevieve Carlton holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University and earned tenure as a history professor at the University of Louisville. An award-winning historian and writer, Genevieve has published multiple scholarly articles and a book with the University of Chicago Press. She currently works as a freelance writer and consultant.

Header Image Credits: CBS Photo Archive, NHAC NGUYEN, NBC, Raymond Hall, Dirck Halstead, Bettman | Getty Images

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