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Tom Casperson was 11 when he started working in his father’s log trucking business in the Upper Peninsula. He learned everything at a young age and ascended to owning the business before launching a second career in politics.

Casperson didn’t have a college degree when he served three terms in the Michigan House of Representatives. Now in his second term in the Senate, he still isn’t a college graduate but touts the benefits of his “real-life” degree.

“Life experience is as deeply as important as a college degree,” said Casperson, R-Escanaba.

Casperson has company: One out of every five Michigan lawmakers lack a formal higher education degree, according to Detroit News research, raising the question of whether a college degree is a prerequisite for leadership and political office.

Some say the lack of college degrees among Michigan lawmakers is a sad statement on leadership, especially since so many constituents could never get so far without college. But others say a person’s achievements must be seen in context with the rest of his or her life.

The discussion emerged within the past few weeks as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who did not finish his college degree, entered the Republican presidential race. If elected, Walker would be the first president without a college degree since Harry Truman, who left office more than 60 years ago.

“It does matter,” said Martin Habalewsky, a Port Huron resident. “If you are going to be making policy without a college degree ... the public would be better served by having officeholders with educational credentials.”

But others say it’s a little more nuanced.

“It’s the performance in office that tells the tale, not the qualifications,” said Chris Robling, a Republican strategist based in Chicago. “The presence or absence of a college degree make a statement but it is a limited statement and that statement has to be in context with an individual’s life and life story.”

Walker’s lack of a college degree has emerged as a discussion point in an era where college matters more than ever. He attended Marquette University during the 1980s, served on student government but left before graduating to work for the Red Cross.

Many high-profile people have enjoyed success without a college degree, including writer Gore Vidal, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, news anchor Peter Jennings and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.

But those people are rare, many say.

“It can certainly be done and there are ways to learn and develop,” said Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson. “It would take an extraordinarily rare person to be able to get that level outside of formal education ... and I don’t want young people to get the message if (they) could do it, then I can, too.”

Additionally, experts say, college has never been more crucial than in today’s global economy: College graduates earn 66 percent more than those with only a high school diploma and are less likely to face unemployment, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. What’s more, about 66 percent of all jobs are projected to require postsecondary education or training by 2020.

Mike Rowe, host of the Discovery channel’s “Dirty Jobs,” has called the push to attend college “the worst advice in the history of the world.” But U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan says in most cases, a college education is an essential prerequisite for success.

“If you look at any study of long-term earnings, if you look at the overwhelming number of successful people in any fields, all have college degrees,” Duncan said. “Someone with a college degree can make as much on average a million dollars more over their lifetime than someone who doesn’t have a degree.”

The percentage of Americans age 25 to 29 who earned a bachelor’s degree or higher increased from 23 percent in 1990 to 34 percent in 2014, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Those who had completed a master’s degree or higher increased from 5 percent in 1995 to 8 percent in 2014.

Women generally have had higher education attainment rates than men at each level since 2000.

The issue is fraught with contradictions, as even those in academia say it’s loaded with complexities.

Ed Sidlow, a political science professor at Eastern Michigan University, said there is a difference between those who have gone to college, and those who don’t.

“Lawmakers without benefit of higher education are sometimes at a disadvantage,” Sidlow said. “The best thing a college degree does is help someone think in a systematic way.”

On a more pragmatic level, Sidlow said, having lawmakers with college degrees gives them something in common: “When we share life experiences with colleagues, it’s easier to work with them.”

Thomas Pleger, president of Lake Superior State University in the Upper Peninsula, said there are many qualities that make a good leader and multiple ways to build these skills and qualities.

“Earning a four-year degree that is grounded in liberal education is one way to develop these skills, but not the only way,” Pleger said.

He noted that about one-third of U.S. adults hold a four-year degree.

“Our elected officials should reflect their constituencies and therefore one would predict that, in a democracy, we would have political leaders who have not earned a degree and who have developed their skills sets through experiences outside of formal education,” Pleger said.

“Today’s elected officials need to understand multiple viewpoints, connect different sources of data, be good problem solvers and communicators, and have a sense of empathy. College is a great way to develop these skills and there is no question that a college degree provides more opportunities to the individual and society as a whole.”

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com

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