This NFLL Blog is adapted from a written response to a recent media inquiry.
There have been relatively few presidential children who have gone from the teen years to young adults, moving from the White House and into a dormitory room at college, but Malia Obama is one. Scheduled to begin her freshman year of college in September of 2016, she is currently touring different university campuses in search of just the right place for her.
The most recent presidential children who were enrolled in college during their father’s presidency were the twin daughters of George W. and Laura Bush, Jenna and Barbara Bush.
The former was enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin and the latter at Yale University, but both missed the media scrutiny that Malia Obama in now undergoing: the Bush twins began their college years two months before their father was elected president in 2000.
Chelsea Clinton, who was living in the White House when she first visited and ultimately decided on attending Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, offers more of a precedent.
There was much coverage, including some White House photos, showing her attending an orientation and moving into her dorm room, assisted by her parents. There was little coverage, however, of her going through the process of choosing the right college for her.
In recent years, presidential children have found it perhaps easier to continue living in the White House and attending a local institution of higher education.
Jeff Carter, already married at the time he moved into the White House for a brief period at the start of his father’s presidency, rather quietly decided to attend graduate school at nearby George Washington University.
Margaret Truman also went to college there, the campus close enough to walk home. Lynda Bird Johnson, originally a student at the University of Texas at Austin, transferred to the same college.
Presidential son-in-law David Eisenhower went to George Washington University Law School, but although he and his wife Julie Nixon kept a suite at the White HouseIn the 19th century, when her father was president, they had their own private apartment in Bethesda, Maryland. Andrew Johnson, Jr. decided to remain closer to his family and attended Georgetown University
At the time his father became President, Jack Ford was already at student at Utah State University, but he came home to live with his parents in the White House to work on his father’s 1976 presidential campaign.
In contrast was his brother Steve Ford, who graduated from high school two months before their father became President upon the resignation of Richard Nixon.
A month after that he left the White House (where he’d only lived briefly) and headed to Utah, intending to join his brother at the state university there.
Going back into the 19th century, Andrew Johnson, Jr. decided to remain closer to his family and attended Georgetown University.
Susan Ford, who hosted her June 1975 high school prom in the White House, seemed to have decided before graduation that she wanted to remain close to her parents and thus enrolled in the fall of 1975 at the girl’s school Mount Vernon College (now part of the George Washington University), in suburban Washington, a short commute to the White House. She later transferred to the University of Kansas.
Previous to 1945, the only First Daughters who attended college were already enrolled at the time their fathers became President – Helene Taft at Bryne Mawr in Pennsylvania and Jesse Wilson at Goucher College in Maryland. In the case of Helene Taft, she took a leave of absence in 1909 to serve as a substitute White House hostess for her father, following the sudden but mild stroke of her mother.
First Sons who began college at the time of their father’s incumbencies were all “legacy” students, their chance of acceptance being improved by the fact that their fathers had also gone there. Thus, they made no college search.
These included Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr. enrolled at Harvard University in 1933 and his brother John who began there two years later, and the sons of Theodore Roosevelt, “Teddy, Jr,” who started there in 1905 and Kermit in 1908.
In 1924, John Coolidge enrolled at Amherst College, his father’s alma mater.
Coolidge had a difficult time, initially, becoming the first Presidential Child to have to share a college dorm room with a Secret Service agent.
In the 19th century, there were no First Daughters who attended college. Among the First Sons who went to college at the time of their father’s incumbencies, John Adams II (son of John Quincy Adams) followed family tradition and went to Harvard University.
Alan Arthur was known for making unannounced trips down to Washington from college, surprising his father and the White House staff by often arriving in the wee hours of the morning.
Robert Lincoln was determined to attend Harvard University but failed the entrance exam when he first applied in 1859. He spent a year of further study at Phillips Exeter Academy and gained entrance to Harvard during his father’s presidency – there is no evidence that any special consideration was given to him as the President’s son. He graduated in 1864.
The two eldest sons of James A. Garfield, Harry Garfield and James “Jim” Garfield both gained entrance to Williams College during their father’s initial months as President, and enrolled in the fall of 1881 just weeks after their father died, after lingering two months following his being shot.
Webb Hayes was enrolled at Cornell University at the time his father ran for President in 1876, but took a leave of absence to become an aide to him. He did not return to college but rather lived in the White House and continued to work as his father’s aide.
His brother Birchard had graduated from Cornell University in 1874, two years before his father’s presidency began. He did, however, leave the White House to pursue a law degree at Harvard, graduating three months after his father’s presidency ended.
Why, one wonders, did so many presidential children decide to delay, take a leave of absence, or relocate from where they had chosen to pursue a higher education and instead remain or move closer to and live the most famous and watched home in the country, especially at an age when young adults are often eager to live independently for the first time, away from their parents?
Perhaps the story of one presidential child can offer a clue.
Julie Nixon was a recently-married Smith College student at the time her father became President.
With the campus anti-war movement especially strong in Massachusetts schools, her father decided not to deliver the commencement address he was invited to give and to also not attend her graduation, fearing his presence would distract from the importance of the day to the other students, especially since anti-war protestors seeking to make their point with President Nixon planned to picket the event.
It was a devastating turn of events for Pat Nixon, who had come up from poverty to put herself through college and she’d wanted to see both of her daughters complete their higher education and participate in the symbolic conclusion of it with a graduation ceremony. Instead, Julie Nixon had a “mock” graduation with a family celebration at Camp David.
Except for that instance, however, there are no known examples of any First Ladies who regretted their children deciding to continue living at home with the family, in the White House.