Charlene Harrington graduated with a joint Ph.D. from the Department of Sociology and the Department of Higher Education in 1975. Her specialty areas were medical sociology, work, and education and her dissertation was entitled: Ideologies of Physician Groups Contenting for Power Within the Medical Professor. She grew up on a farm in Kansas and received the Bachelor's degree in nursing from the University of Kansas, the Masters degree in public health nursing from the University of Washington.