When President Obama gave the commencement address last week at the Air Force Academy, he congratulated the cadets for excelling at one of the most demanding schools in the country.
But decades after Mr. Obama completed his own college course work, his academic performance is still a mystery. Before and after his election as president, Mr. Obama has refused to release his college transcripts from his days as an undergraduate and a law school student.
Most presidents’ academic records are made public by the time they reach the highest office in the land, either with their consent or by someone else digging them up.
“There’s no reason why people shouldn’t know,” said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who focuses on the presidency. “At this point, it’s pretty moot — perhaps amusing if it turned out that he didn’t do very well.”
But whenever Team Obama is asked about the president’s college performance, officials dodge the question, obviously with Mr. Obama’s blessing.
The White House press office refers such questions to campaign officials, who in turn refuse to provide any information. The Obama campaign didn’t respond to questions for this article.
Presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney also hasn’t released the transcripts of his college years at Brigham Young University, or his four years at Harvard University where he earned a combined law degree and an MBA.
A Romney campaign spokeswoman didn’t respond to a request on whether Mr. Romney intends to release his college records.
But it is known that Mr. Romney graduated cum laude from the law school in 1975, and was named a Baker Scholar for graduating in the top 5 percent of his business school class. (Unlike Mr. Obama, the former Massachusetts governor also has not released his 2011 tax returns but said he will do so before the November election.)
Another stonewaller in recent presidential politics was Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic nominee in 2004, who refused to release his college transcripts during the campaign against President George W. Bush.
The Democrat finally relented in 2005, six months after he lost the election, revealing that he had received four D’s in his freshman year, including a political science course. It also turned out that his grade-point average at Yale University in the 1960s was nearly identical to Mr. Bush’s, despite the media’s portrayal during the campaign of Mr. Kerry as the more intellectual candidate and the common image of Mr. Bush as dumb.
The years-long secrecy about Mr. Obama’s college records has led to accusations that he is trying to hide something — for example, grades that might have justified neither his transfer to Columbia University in 1981 from Occidental College, a small school in Los Angeles where he was on a scholarship, nor his acceptance into Harvard Law School in 1988. Mr. Obama graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School in 1991.
Donald Trump opined without proof four years ago that Mr. Obama benefited from affirmative action, prompting accusations of racism against Mr. Trump.
A story even circulated that Mr. Obama came to the U.S. from Indonesia to study on a Fulbright scholarship under the name “Barry Soetoro” — the last name of his stepfather — although Politifact and FactCheck.org have both debunked that claim.
The same story falsely claimed that Occidental released Mr. Obama’s college transcripts as a result of litigation. There was litigation, but courts have never ordered the college to turn over Mr. Obama’s records.
A conservative Web site, thetrenches.us, last week raised its “reward” to $20,000 for anyone who can provide Mr. Obama’s college transcripts.
College transcripts can be a source of embarrassment for candidates. When a news organization got hold of Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s college transcripts last year, it showed that the then-Republican presidential candidate compiled poor grades at Texas A&M University, including D’s in trigonometry, chemistry, Shakespeare and an animal-science course called “feeds and feeding.”
In 1999, the New Yorker magazine uncovered George W. Bush’s college records as he was running for the GOP presidential nomination. It confirmed what Mr. Bush had been saying all along — that he was a “C” student at Yale University.
Mr. Hess said there is no correlation between college grades and performance as president.
“It turns out to be not much of a predictor,” the Brookings scholar said. “Franklin Roosevelt wasn’t a super academic. Harry Truman never even went to college. We know the problems of George W. Bush. Ronald Reagan I don’t think ever made Phi Beta Kappa.”
Richard M. Nixon, he said, earned good grades in college but his presidency ended in ignominy. Mr. Hess remembers a conversation he had with Mr. Nixon in 1961 after the Republican had failed to win the presidency on his first attempt in 1960.
At the time, Mr. Hess was being interviewed by Mr. Nixon about partnering on a writing project.
“The first time I ever sat down with Richard Nixon … he said, ‘Were you Phi Beta Kappa?’ ” Mr. Hess recalled. “I was stunned. It was the first time in Washington anybody had ever asked me that. Fortunately, I could say I was. So he cared about that sort of thing.”