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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, commonly known as AOC, has become one of the most prominent and influential politicians in America since being elected to Congress in 2018. Her bold progressive stances have earned both ardent support and intense criticism. A common assumption many have made is that this savvy legislator must have an educational background in law. However, the facts say otherwise.
AOC‘s Early Life and Non-Legal Educational Background
While AOC has become known for her command of policy details and ability to grill witnesses, she did not actually attend law school. Let‘s examine her educational journey.
Ocasio-Cortez attended Yorktown High School in Westchester County, New York, where she took an early interest in social justice issues. After graduating in 2007, she enrolled at Boston University, declaring dual bachelor‘s degrees in economics and international relations.
During her time in college, she took on internships, like one with the National Hispanic Institute, that enabled her to gain experience in public service and advocacy work. This complemented her coursework, which included classes focused on social justice, environmental sustainability, and urban economics.
So while abundantly clear that AOC is no amateur when it comes to policy matters, she did not pursue or obtain a law degree. Her impressive command of legislative details stems from her diverse educational background centered in economics and political science.
A law degree is certainly not a prerequisite for elected office. According to a 2017 study by the Congressional Research Service, over half of Representatives and over a third of Senators in the 115th Congress did not hold law degrees. AOC‘s educational path is common among many other legislators today.
Her Circuitous Route from College to Capitol Hill
Like many new graduates, AOC took on a myriad of jobs after finishing her studies at Boston University in 2011. She worked as a bartender, waitress, and community organizer to make ends meet. During this time, she witnessed firsthand the struggles of working-class Americans, which inspired her deep passion for economic justice.
Here is a quick look at her early jobs before entering politics full-time:
- Educational Director – National Hispanic Institute
- Community Organizer
This diverse work experience, coupled with her academic background, helped shape AOC‘s progressive policy positions by exposing her directly to economic inequality.
Her first significant foray into politics came in 2016 when she joined Bernie Sanders‘ presidential campaign as an organizer. This grassroots campaign exposed her to the mechanics of running for office, and the impact progressive stances like Medicare for All and tuition-free college could have when promoted effectively.
In 2018, AOC launched her own insurgent campaign for New York‘s 14th Congressional District. Despite facing steep odds against the incumbent Joe Crowley, her bold progressive platform propelled the newcomer to a decisive primary victory, defeating Crowley by 15 percentage points. She went on to win the general election easily. At just 29 years old, she became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.
The Roots of AOC‘s Politics Lie in Her College Studies
While some have attempted to portray AOC‘s lack of a law degree as a deficiency, her formal college studies have clearly laid the foundation for her staunchly progressive political viewpoint and policy priorities.
Her degree in international relations provides crucial context for her global outlook and stance on issues like immigration reform and human rights. Classes on diplomacy, foreign policy, and cultural studies equipped her to address complex geopolitical matters and relate them to her constituents.
Economics gives her the intellectual basis to tackle systemic inequality through progressive taxation and other means. Coursework in macroeconomics, microeconomics, and labor economics shape her proposals to reduce income inequality.
Additionally, AOC‘s firsthand work experience after college, coupled with academic lessons on economic and social justice, fuel her advocacy for Medicare for All, a higher minimum wage, and other progressive policies aimed at uplifting the working class.
For example, her advocacy for a $15 minimum wage stems directly from her time working service jobs after college and witnessing the inability to make ends meet on low wages.
Valid Critiques or Empty Attacks on Her Education?
Since bursting onto the political scene, AOC has faced ample criticism, some of it centered around her nontraditional educational trajectory into politics versus a traditional law school background. But do these critiques hold up?
Criticism: Some have accused her of exaggerating her educational credentials.
Reality: However, these attacks do not seem well founded, as AOC has not publicly claimed to hold a law degree or misrepresented her actual Boston University bachelor‘s degrees.
Criticism: Others argue her lack of a law degree proves inexperience.
Reality: Given the diversity of backgrounds among legislators, this comes off as a hollow attack. Her command of details and connecting with constituents show firsthand ability, regardless of her alma mater.
The chart below shows the educational background of current Members of Congress:
|No higher education||2%||0%|
Source: Congressional Research Service, 2021
This data shows law degrees are common but far from universal among legislators today. One‘s passion, capabilities, and connection with voters matter more than mere credentials.
The Bottom Line
While assumptions that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez attended law school are commonplace, the Congresswoman actually holds college degrees in economics and political science. Despite lacking a law degree, her educational background provides a strong foundation for the policy positions and political success that have made AOC a household name. Rather than getting lost in credential critiques, her intellect, life experience and determination to fight for social and economic justice make AOC a transformative political figure.