From Waiter to White House: How 7 U.S. Presidents Worked Their Way Through College
Next to being born in a log cabin, which doesn’t happen much anymore, one of the best things presidential aspirants can brag about is working their way through college.
Unfortunately, that, too, may be going the way of the knotty-pine birthplace.
The ever-rising cost of a degree has made it all but impossible for even the most ambitious young striver to pay the bill by waiting tables or mopping the floors of Old Main.
Few of the current presidential candidates, no matter how prone to embellishment, can make much of a claim to toiling through their college years. Even incumbent President Barack Obama, hardly a child of wealth, seems to have financed his education at Occidental College and then Columbia University largely with scholarships, student loans, and support from a generous grandmother, according to biographer David Maraniss.
But it wasn’t always so. As recently as Bill Clinton, U.S. presidents have prided themselves on earning their education the hard way. Here’s how seven 20th century presidents put themselves through college and on the path to the White House. We may never see their like again.
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President from 1977 to 1981
U.S. Naval Academy, Class of 1947
James Earl Carter, Jr., reportedly decided at age 7 that he planned to attend the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and even sent away for a catalog, not mentioning that he was still in elementary school. According to biographer Peter G. Bourne, the catalog “instantly became a treasured possession,” that the boy carefully memorized.
One reason a military academy appealed to young Carter was that tuition was free, and he didn’t want his parents to have to pay for college. When the time came for him to apply, however, his local congressman didn’t provide the recommendation he needed. So Carter enrolled instead at a two-year school, Georgia Southwestern College, now Georgia Southwestern State University.
Carter helped pay his $204 annual tuition by working as a lab assistant and substitute teaching freshman science classes. He eventually won an appointment to Annapolis, but had to take additional courses at Georgia Tech before the academy would let him begin. He entered Annapolis in 1943 and graduated three years later.
President from 1993 to 2001
Georgetown University, Class of 1968
When the time came for young William Jefferson Clinton to go to college, he applied to just one, he writes in his memoir, My Life: the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. This despite the fact that he had never seen Georgetown and had no interest in foreign service.
But he was determined to go to college in Washington, D.C., and he believed Georgetown was his best option. Although his parents had to stretch to afford the $1,200 tuition and $700 for room, board, and incidentals, they went with the plan.
Still, his budget was so tight that decades later he could still remember that a Royal Crown Cola cost 15 cents, while 35 cents bought a tuna on rye. By the start of his junior year, however, the ambitious lad had charmed his way into a part-time job as an assistant clerk on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“Now I would witness the drama unfold firsthand, albeit as a flunky,” he wrote in his memoir. “And I would be able to pay for college without any help from Mother and Daddy, taking the financial burden off them and the guilt burden off me.”
President from 1974 to 1977
University of Michigan, Class of 1935
Gerald Ford graduated from high school in 1931, one of the bleaker years of the Great Depression.
His mother and stepfather, who owned a struggling paint store, didn’t have the money to send him to college, but his high school principal stepped in, inventing a $100 scholarship to pay Ford’s tuition at the University of Michigan. The principal also introduced him to Michigan’s football coach, who found him a spot on the team and got him a job waiting tables at the university’s hospital in return for free meals. (Michigan didn’t have football scholarships back then, according to Ford biographer Lou Cannon.) An aunt and uncle kicked in $2 a week to give him some spending money.
When the future president joined a fraternity, he had to wait tables there too, in order to cover the dues. Ford would later go on to Yale, working his way through its law school as an assistant football coach.
President from 1929 to 1933
Leland Stanford Junior University, Class of 1895
The president most associated with the Great Depression of the 1930s, and often awarded the blame for it, Herbert Hoover was no stranger to poverty himself.
The son of a blacksmith, he was born in Iowa, orphaned at age 9, and sent to live with an uncle in Oregon. He left school to work at age 14, but later entered Leland Stanford Junior University, now better known simply as Stanford University, as part of its first class. In fact, Hoover is sometimes referred to as Stanford's very first student because he was apparently the first to be assigned a dorm room.
Although tuition at Stanford was free in those days (today it’s $45,729 a year), Hoover still had to pay for room, board, and expenses. He did that with an assortment of jobs, including delivering newspapers and starting his own student laundry service.
Hoover graduated in 1895 with a degree in geology and became rich as an international mining consultant and mine owner before turning his attention to public service in 1914.
President from 1963 to 1969
Southwest Texas State Teachers College, Class of 1930
Lyndon Baines Johnson showed his celebrated flair for political maneuvering from the moment he arrived at Southwest Texas State Teachers College (now Texas State University) in San Marcos, Tex.
Though jobs were scarce, his politically connected father had persuaded the college president to give him one—picking up trash, cutting weeds, and raking rocks on campus for 20 cents an hour. Johnson himself soon talked the president into a more prestigious and better paying position, mopping floors in Old Main at 30 cents an hour. Before long he had prevailed on the president to hire him as his personal office boy, at $15 a month.
“Within five weeks of his arrival at the college,” wrote biographer Robert Caro, “he was working in the president’s office, in a job which hadn’t even existed before he got there.”
President from 1969 to 1974
Whittier College, Class of 1934
Richard Milhous Nixon may have been the most reviled president of the 20th century, not to mention the only president ever forced to resign under threat of impeachment. But nobody ever said he was lazy.
Although he’d later say he dreamed of going to an Eastern college, his family needed him to help out at home. So he enrolled instead at Whittier College, a small Quaker-founded institution in his California hometown. A bequest from his grandfather covered his $250 a year tuition, and Nixon made up the rest of his expenses by working in his family’s grocery store, managing the produce department.
“Richard got up at 4 a.m., drove to Los Angeles, haggled over his purchases, drove back to the store, set up the vegetables, and then began his [school] day,” biographer Stephen Ambrose wrote. “Afternoons and weekends he kept up the books for the store. He usually studied until past midnight.” Nixon would later make a point of having worked his way through college in his famous 1952 “Checkers” speech, a response to charges that he was living large, courtesy of wealthy donors.
President from 1981 to 1989
Eureka College, Class of 1932
As an actor, Ronald Wilson Reagan spent his share of time on Hollywood movie-set campuses, playing everything from a Notre Dame student in Knute Rockne, All-American to a professor in films like She’s Working Her Way Through College and the immortal Bedtime for Bonzo.
But the future president spent his real campus years far away from the bright lights, at Eureka College, a small Christian school in central Illinois. Reagan’s family didn’t have the money to send him to college, so he attended Eureka on a partial football scholarship plus the money he earned doing an assortment of jobs, including lifeguarding, coaching, and washing dishes at a women’s dormitory.
He would recall that last one as “the best job I ever had”—even after he’d become the most powerful man on the planet.