The confident look of a man who didn't finish college.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Who Needs a Diploma to Be President?

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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The Washington Post has a lengthy article on Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's college career and his decision to drop out of Marquette University during his senior year. I read it carefully, and I think that this piece raises a pretty important question about Walker's presidential campaign.

Namely: Who cares?

We're talking about events that happened almost 30 years ago. None of them are illegal, or even, frankly, very interesting. (He got a D-minus in French!) So why are we talking about this?

This is not the first time I've heard that Walker's status as a college dropout must mean there's something wrong with him. Decent, hardworking, upper-middle-class people who write for good media outlets graduate from college, dammit. If Walker didn't, that must tell you something ominous about his character.

Now, maybe I'm partial, because I myself racked up a few D's in college, and for much the same reason that Walker seems to have: I didn't go to class enough. Unlike Walker, I pulled it together, got my grades up and got my diploma on time. But it was touch-and-go for a while.

Does that tell you something about my character? Yes, I think it does -- at the age of 20. But, sadly, that was a couple of decades ago, and I've changed a bit since then. When I was finishing my book, which involved a months-long stream of 18-hour days, my mother took me aside and said, "You have to stop working so hard. You're wearing yourself out." All I could do was laugh, and after I said, "Mom, when I was 20, could you have imagined yourself saying those words to me?" she laughed, too.

My employers don't have to look at my college record to assess my critical-thinking skills or my work ethic. I guess they could look at my grad school transcript, where I did pretty well, or better yet, they could look at the work I have been putting out pretty steadily since 2001. Some of the folks who blow off college classes are destined for a career of lost jobs and permanent layabout status. Others just need a little time -- and maybe a brush with hard reality -- to get their act together.

There's a lot of debate among economists over what education really does for us. I mean, we know what it does for us -- helps us get better jobs -- but economists are split over why this is the case. Some think it is mostly a signal that you're conformist, intelligent and responsible enough to sit through four years of classes without flunking. Others think it mostly functions by imparting valuable skills that make people better workers.

But in either case, that's irrelevant to Walker's candidacy. College genuinely may give you important skills -- but that doesn't mean it's the only way to acquire those skills. I mean, Abraham Lincoln did manage to struggle along somehow.

Or college completion may be a signal of your character. But we have other, better signals about Scott Walker's abilities -- namely, his time as governor.

The fact that we seem so fixated on events decades past is its own dire signal -- of the way that America's Mandarin class is starting to think about college education not merely as the basic credential required for many of the best-paying jobs, but also the basic credential required for being a worthy, capable person. This is not merely untrue, but also a giant middle finger raised to the majority of upstanding American citizens who also didn't graduate from college.

Of course, if Scott Walker does become president, it would be nice if he spoke better French. But on the scale of things that will matter for his presidency, that probably ranks only slightly above his bowling score.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net