Did Obama Really Get Rejected from Swarthmore?

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

While last Tuesday night’s election results have certainly set a tone of giddiness on campus over the past few days, Obama’s resounding victory has also sparked the resurgence of one dark but very well-circulated rumor: our president-elect was once denied admission to Swarthmore.

The admissions office may have to keep mum, but senior Joel Mittleman ’09 actually had the chance to personally confirm the rumor when Obama held an open town hall at Strath Haven High School during the Pennsylvania primaries. “I did ask Obama [whether it was true],” he says, “not during the actual question and answer, but as he was walking the line shaking hands afterwards.” Mittleman recalls the Senator laughing in response, asking him where he heard the information, and then saying “Yes, it’s true. It really broke my heart, actually.”

Alum Anne Kolker ’08, a former intern in the Senate office and Mittleman’s original source of the rumor, further confirmed the story: “Yes, the first thing President-elect Obama said to me was “Ah, Swarthmore, great school. They rejected me.” Thankfully, Kolker reports Obama held no grudge against her. Here’s hoping admissions doesn’t write off any other presidential hopefuls.

Wondering about other Swatties or near-Swatties in office? Ask the Gazette!


  1. "We're so smart we turned away the next leader of the free world!" kind of thing? I don't know, I find it less delightful than sad.

  2. I think it's a bit premature to give him an honorary degree. Not that I don't think he will (eventually) deserve it, but the College (and Obama) can wait on this one…having said that, I think it'd be great if he did eventually get it.

  3. !!!, what about "And you thought you were the admissions mistake…"

    Or "Swarthmore Class of '83: None of Us Are As Impressive As This Dude Who Got Rejected"

  4. This controverts the claim that highly selective colleges must grant admission to underqualified minority students in order to achieve diversity. If Swarthmore rejected Barack Obama, I doubt they found room for those mythical mediocre beneficiaries of affirmative action.

  5. Or maybe he was just really obnoxious in his essays or something. If this is true, it must have really appeared the Barack Obama was not as qualified as hundreds of other students that year. He IS human, you know, despite the fact that some of you seem to think otherwise.

  6. It should probably be "Obama got rejected by my college" so people who search for the key terms "obama" or "rejected" will find it.

  7. L, that's precisely my point. An applicant named "Barack Hussein Obama" who lived in Indonesia, identifies as a racial minority, is the son of an immigrant, and who calls Hawaii home didn't get the benefit of the doubt. Admissions found some compelling reason to send him the skinny envelope.

    Obama was relatively successful academically, distinguishing himself from other applicants to Columbia and later Harvard Law. Yes, he is human. I'm sure his application to Swarthmore was imperfect. Yours and mine probably were, too. But if selective colleges were as desperate for racial and geographic diversity as many rejected students claim they are, Obama would be have been exactly the type of applicant for whom Swarthmore would lower the bar. And, admissions being a zero-sum game, this could have been at the expense of some upper middle class white student from New Jersey or wherever who had a more polished application, better SAT scores, etc. The admissions process isn't perfect, and Obama's having been rejected says just as little about him as our having been admitted says about us.

  8. " This controverts the claim that highly selective colleges must grant admission to underqualified minority students in order to achieve diversity. If Swarthmore rejected Barack Obama, I doubt they found room for those mythical mediocre beneficiaries of affirmative action."

    I disagree with the methodology of this, more than the claim itself necessarily. A sample size of 1 tells us almost nothing about large-scale policies. The claim also seems to rest on the foundation that some other commenters are using which is that if Obama were rejected, we must all be better than him, which is obviously ridiculous. I agree with Kristen that this makes us look worse than him. On the other hand if he were applying right after high school I wouldn't be surprised if he had poor grades, as Occidental isn't really at Swarthmore's level, and even during his transfer there's no evidence about this info. We have evidence of Bush's, McCain's, Kerry's and Gore's disappointingly poor grades but Obama's info is conspicuously absent. We do know he was magna cum laude at Harvard Law School though so obviously he's not dumb. In any case, it's possible he wasn't particularly qualified when he applied here but obviously his post-collegiate success speaks for itself, so without any more data I'd just avoid sweeping generalizations and chalk it up to college admissions being a crapshoot.

  9. I wouldn't read too much into it. Admissions are always a crap shoot, and even if he had had stellar grades and a record of community service there's no guarentee he would have made it in.

  10. Well, Jimbo always does say the only admissions mistakes are the people they reject. Can we go back and retroactively trade Obama for Dukakis?

  11. Why is everyone bashing Dukakis!? I mean, no he didn't become president, but is that like the new qualification for being a decent/intelligent/acceptable person?

  12. I don't really understand why this is such a big deal. All it says is that having the qualifications to become president are not necessarily the same qualifications necessary to get into Swarthmore, which makes sense to me, since many of us are more along the lines of academics than politics.

  13. Have your say.
    Ah, if we all had a crystal ball and could envision the future, what kinds of actions would we have taken that are different than the choices that we've ultimately made. Amazing individuals have gone to Swarthmore, it takes all of you (us) to make this world a better place and we can – if we support this visionary.

  14. This is …ummm…sort of, kind of ridiculous. There's a lot going on in the world right now, I think we should focus on that….if this is a joke…i guess i get it.lol.

  15. I thought Obama wasn't that great of a student in high school, and only began to really apply himself in college (which is why he was able to transfer from Antioch to Columbia). In that case, getting rejected from Swarthmore right out of high school wouldn't be that surprising. If he was rejected upon transferring, well, Swarthmore made a mistake.

  16. The fact that this article was published speaks to the incredible arrogance found on our campus. Is it really necessary to write an article about someone, albeit a president, who got rejected decades ago? Are you really that insecure with our school's lack of name recognition? Because that's exactly why an article like this is written.

    Congratulations. Swarthmore's awesome. Move on.

  17. The Daily Gazette frequently posts answers to questions posed by the Swarthmore community through our Ask The Gazette feature ( http://daily.swarthmore.edu/features/atg/ ). In this case, the question was asked in order to clarify a rumor (just as, last year, we tracked down the history of Swarthmore's nickname, "Kremlin on the Krum").

    As for this question, it has proven to be one of our most popular stories all semester—which suggests that it is a legitimately interesting question for much of campus.

  18. I think that, more than anything, this is just an amusing fact. Sure we can try to draw other conclusions from it (one decision can end up not meaning that much, Swarthmore is rampant with rampant with intellectual arrogance, etc.), but at the end of the day it's less about Swarthmore = president or whatever, and more about, "Oh, look at that, isn't that amusing." As someone else said earlier, "I wouldn't read too much into it."

    But maybe that's just me.

  19. No offense to Swat, but GOOD THING HE DIDN'T GET IN. How many US Presidents have come out of Swarthmore College? Even if he went to law school afterwards he probably would have signed up for some non-profit, (certainly make no important political connections) and never been heard from again. The admissions office did the whole country a huge favor.

  20. "How many US Presidents have come out of Swarthmore College?"

    First of all, this is about the same as saying "Nobody has ever been president in 2012, therefore nobody will ever be president in 2012." There's always a first, you know.

    Also, Dukakis? You don't even count him as having tried anymore?

  21. Thanks to The Gazette for this story. It illustrates an important point–that rejection is always a good thing for building resilience. When the rejection comes from a place like Swarthmore, all the better. It will take deep resilience to lead our world out of the mess we're in, and it appears Obama has this quality in spades. I have to say also I admire Obama's ability to speak openly about his rejection “Yes, it’s true. It really broke my heart, actually.” Lastly, Obama would've been my classmate at Swarthmore if he'd been admitted. I believe he would've done just as well if he'd come here. But maybe the "Kremlin on the Crum" would've branded him too far left and because of that would not be our next president. So it's kind of weird to wonder about maybe a little accident so close to oneself altering the course of history!

  22. As a member of the class of '83 I'm just terribly disappointed that I didn't have the chance to say he was in my class!

  23. I suppose the scariest is thought is: if Obama had been admitted, after a good Swarthmore educatoin, might he have decided to go to graduate school and become a PROFESSOR, rather than law school and become a COMMUNITY ORGANIZER?

  24. I am really amazed by the tone of some of these comments, as if Swarthmore is the only good place to go to school. Swarthmore is a unique place to spend 4 years, but when you graduate and get out in the world, you meet brilliant and interesting and committed people who went to all sorts of schools for all sorts of reasons. Over time, the impact of that name or association lessens. I was intrigued by the trivia, too, but let's not go overboard!

  25. Sarah '94, I don't think that really IS the tone of these comments. If anything, they vacillate between, "Wow, that was dumb of Swarthmore, but I guess it's just a crapshoot" and "Good thing he didn't get in because Swarthmore would have in some way corrupted him and made him unfit to be President." I'd say the comments are fairly self-deprecating. In fact, I just looked through and I really can't think of one comment that takes the tone that Swarthmore is the only good place to go to school (which would be a ridiculous assertion in response to Obama's post-rejection success). Rathter, I think some are just saying, as Swarthmore students or alums, that it would have been neat if he HAD gone here. Maybe I'm just misunderstanding your comment…

  26. Punahou was (and is) a pretty competitive high school. I don't know how many of us from Punahou '79 applied to Swarthmore or how many got in, but at least one ended up going to Swat – me. In high school Barack was pretty laid back – real nice guy but not involved in a lot of activities and, from what I remember, not an outstanding student. I don't think anyone could have predicted how it would turn out. And yes, I went on to grad school and ended up a professor. It is easy now to conclude that Swat made the wrong choice, but of course if they had taken Barack instead of me I would not have met my beautiful wife…

  27. This is the saddest possible indictment of Swarthmore College.If Swarthmore had accepted Obama, he would never have been elected president. Thank God he didn't end up here or at Berkeley or some other campus that is synonymous with liberal extremism to mainstream America. He would have been unelectable. There is definitely something wrong with our College when our the reputation of our monolithic worldview would have sunk the career of such an important American figure who has the potential to do so much good.

  28. Michael Dukakis spoke at my graduation in 1975 and he was by far the most boring speaker — commencement or otherwise — I have ever heard. "Like watching paint dry" is the phrase that comes to mind. He was a similarly uninspiring presidential candidate (and I voted for him anyway!) I imagine that the only people who are aware that Michael Dukakis went to Swarthmore are Swarthmoreans, members of his family, and Massachusetts/presidential politics fact junkies. Obama's admission or non-admission is a total non-issue. Post-graduate Swarthmoreans soon come to terms with the fact that with very few exceptions, no one really cares where you went to college and many, many people, if they do inquire, will always think you went to Skidmore.

  29. Did anyone actually use "Holy shit that guy went to Swarthmore, don't elect him!" against Dukakis? I'm actually asking, I obviously wasn't around to witness it.

  30. No one cares where the average Swattie went to college, but I don't think you can extend that generalization to alumni who face an intense public spotlight. One could just as easily say "No one cares what your preacher once said" or "No one cares whether you served on a board with a former domestic terrorist". But with Obama, people did care, a lot.

  31. Dear "sad":

    Are you kidding? Do you really spend any of your precious time at Swarthmore thinking about things like this?

    Well, I guess the bottom line is that I won't have to worry about a pseudonymous blogger who calls him/herself "sad" ever becoming president. It's always good to cross a potential worry off the list.

    You could always be the next Chris Van Hollen or Carl Levin, though.

    By the way, I was always under the impression that Columbia had a strong reputation for liberal extremism.

    Curtis Roberts

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