51 Successful People Who Didn’t Go to or Finish College

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When I was in high school back in the 90’s, everyone stressed the importance of a college education. While my school did offer a vocational track, there was quite a bit of pressure placed upon me to work towards attending a 4-year university… not just by society, but by my family. 

My parents only attended community college and often attributed their career choices to this fact. Dad was a postal worker and mom a secretary.  Later, she went to teach in a pre-school as an instructional aide (although I felt she could have taught the class on her own).  Finally, after a back injury, she went to work for a doctor as a receptionist. 

Despite them both having full-time jobs, my father still had a lawn business before and after work. It was necessary in order to pay the bills, put food on the table and take us on vacations once a year. They always said my brother and I deserved better and needed to go away to school. So, we did.

I finished school with a bachelor’s degree in English and am doing what I always wanted to do. I’m a mother of four and part-time writer/editor. My brother, on the other hand, never wound up doing what he originally set out to do – which was become a veterinarian. Instead, he dropped out of college and took an entry level job as an insurance underwriter.

Today, my brother is making six figures and lives a very comfortable life… and he is a “college dropout”. So why all the fuss today about needing a master’s degree or more to lead a successful life?

If you are willing to put in the work, there are plenty of opportunities for success; but don’t just take my word for it. Today, we’re going to prove it to you with our list of 51 successful people who didn’t go to college.

51 Successful People Who Didn't Go to or Finish College

There are plenty of successful people who didn't go to college. College is not for everyone, and there are many successful people who prove that. Here is a list of 33 successful people who never went to or finished college:

1. Bill Gates

As the co-founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates is one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the world. He dropped out of Harvard after two years to start Microsoft with his friend Paul Allen.

2. Mark Zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg is the founder and CEO of Facebook. He started programming when he was just a child and developed Facebook while he was studying at Harvard. Facebook has gone on to start a social media revolution and new career field.

3. Steve Jobs

mark zuckerberg dropout | steve jobs drop out | bill gates college dropout
Steve Jobs with the Apple Macintosh, January 1984 via Wikipedia

Steve Jobs is the co-founder of Apple and one of the most successful entrepreneurs of our time. He dropped out of Reed College after one semester.

4. Richard Branson

Richard Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group, which consists of more than 400 companies. He dropped out of school at the age of 16.

5. Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey is a media mogul, philanthropist, and one of the most successful women in the world. She dropped out of college after one semester to pursue a career in broadcasting. She later went back to finish her degree long after becoming a media mogul.

6. Michael Dell

Michael Dell is the founder and CEO of Dell Technologies. He started the company while he was studying at the University of Texas at Austin. He dropped out of school to focus on his business full-time.

7. Larry Ellison

Larry Ellison is the co-founder and CEO of Oracle. He dropped out of the University of California, Berkeley after one semester.

8. Sergey Brin

Sergey Brin is the co-founder of Google. He started the company while he was studying at Stanford University. He dropped out of school to focus on Google full-time.

9. Bill Hewlett

Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard are the co-founders of Hewlett-Packard. They both dropped out of college to start the company.

10. Jack Dorsey

Jack Dorsey is the co-founder and CEO of Twitter and Square. He dropped out of New York University after two years.

11. Evan Williams

Evan Williams is the co-founder of Twitter and Medium. He dropped out of the University of Nebraska after two years.

12. Paul Allen

Paul Allen is the co-founder of Microsoft. He dropped out of Washington State University after two years to start Microsoft with his friend Bill Gates.

13. Jawed Karim

Jawed Karim is the co-founder of YouTube. He started the company while he was studying at Stanford University. He dropped out of school to focus on YouTube full-time.

14. Reid Hoffman

Reid Hoffman is the co-founder of LinkedIn. He started the company while he was studying at Stanford University. He dropped out of school to focus on LinkedIn full-time.

15. Chris Hughes

Chris Hughes is the co-founder of Facebook. He started the company while he was studying at Harvard University. He dropped out of school to focus on Facebook full-time.

16. Drew Houston

Drew Houston is the founder and CEO of Dropbox. He started the company while he was studying at MIT. He dropped out of school to focus on Dropbox full-time.

17. Tina Brown

Tina Brown is the founder and CEO of Tina Brown Live Media. She dropped out of Oxford University after one year to start her career in journalism.

18. David Karp

David Karp is the founder and CEO of Tumblr. He dropped out of high school at the age of 15 and later took courses at New York City’s Computer School.

19. Michael Bloomberg

Michael Bloomberg is the founder, CEO, and owner of Bloomberg LP. He started the company while he was studying at Johns Hopkins University. He dropped out of school to focus on his company full-time.

20. Scott Cook

Scott Cook is the co-founder and CEO of Intuit. He started the company while he was studying at Stanford University. He dropped out of school to focus on Intuit full-time.

21. Pierre Omidyar

Pierre Omidyar is the founder and chairman of eBay. He started the company while he was studying at Tufts University. He dropped out of school to focus on eBay full-time.

22. Kobe Bryant

The late basketball star Kobe Bryant didn’t go to college. He was drafted straight out of high school by the Charlotte Hornets in 1996.

23. Madonna

She studied dance at the University of Michigan for a short time before dropping out to pursue her music career.

24. Bruce Willis

He studied at Montclair State University for a short time before dropped out to pursue his acting career.

25. Tom Cruise

Tom Cruise didn’t go to college. He dropped out of high school at the age of 18 to pursue his acting career. He never took any acting classes and landed his first role within six months of moving to New York City. He now produces his own movies.

26. Jon Hamm

The Mad Men actor didn’t even complete college. He dropped out of the University of Texas at Austin after two years.

27. Richard Wright

richard wright | successful businessmen who didnt go to college | college dropout success rate
Richard Wright in a 1939 photograph by Carl Van Vechten.

The renowned author of novels such as “Black Boy” and “Native Son” actually never finished college. He went to college in 1918 but his mother's health forced him to leave and get a job to help support the family.

28. Zooey Deschanel

The New Girl actress didn’t go to college, but she did take a few singing and acting classes at the University of Southern California.

29. Tina Turner

A lack of a college education did not stop Tina Turner from becoming one of the biggest names in music. Her talent and hard work as a singer and performer earned her the title “Queen of Rock n Roll”.

30. Jay-Z

The rapper didn’t go to college, but he did attend George Westinghouse Career and Technical Education High School. He is now a billionaire

31. Maya Angelou

The author, poet, and civil rights activist didn’t go to college, but she did attend San Francisco’s Labor School where she briefly left to become the first black female streetcar conductor in the city. Her writing continues to inspire people around the world.

32. Rachel Ray

The popular food personality didn’t go to college and has no formal culinary training, but people love her approachable style and down-to-earth personality.

33. Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln was most famous for being president of the United States, but he was also a successful self-taught lawyer. In addition to teaching himself the law profession by reading Blackstone, Lincoln taught himself trigonometry. One of the most famous men in American history had just one year of formal education.

34. Andrew Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie began a humble life in Scotland before eventually immigrating to the United States. In the 19th century, he led the American steel industry's expansion and became one of the world's leading philanthropists. 

By the 1860s, Carnegie had investments in railroad sleeping cars, railroads, oil derricks, and bridges. He also became even more successful by becoming a bond salesman. Later, he founded New York City's Carnegie Hall, as well as many university trusts and institutions. 

35. Benjamin Franklin

As one of the most well-known Founding Fathers of the U.S., Benjamin Franklin's place in history is secure. But he was much more than a Founding Father. A self-taught polymath, Franklin educated himself in science and was widely considered to be one of the most accomplished men of his era. 

Benjamin Franklin | geniuses who never went to school | why college isnt necessary to be successful
A painting of Benjamin Franklin from 1778

36. Ted Turner

One of the most successful television executives was kicked out of college because he brought a woman into his dorm room. This incident obviously didn't slow Ted Turner down because he went on to have a net worth of more than $2 billion.

Turner worked diligently at an advertising business owned by his father, later taking over the business and making it profitable. In his long career in television, Turner created several hugely successful TV channels, including Turner Network Television (TNT), Cartoon Network, and CNN.

37. Simon Cowell

You probably know Simon Cowell because of his long appearance as the grumpy judge on the hit TV show “American Idol,” “America's Got Talent,” and “The X Factor.” However, Cowell's career goes much deeper than that.

Cowell first made it big in the music industry after dropping out of school when he was just 16 years old. This experience led him to become an industry talent consultant, and he helped develop innovative formats for talent and singing competitions.

38. John Mackey

John Mackey is one of the founders of Whole Foods Market, and he has served as the company's CEO. Whole Foods was bought for $13.7 billion by Amazon in 2017. In 1978, Mackey and his business partner borrowed money from friends and family to open a natural foods store in Austin, Texas.

The pair were kicked out of the apartment they shared and actually lived in their store for a while. These days, Whole Foods has over 500 stores scattered across the U.K. and North America.

39. Tiger Woods

One of the most famous and successful golfers of all time dropped out of college to pursue his career in golf professionally. Woods was accepted to Stanford, but he only made it to his sophomore year. Woods does say that he regrets not spending more time at Stanford.

Since he started his professional golf career in 1996, Woods has won a whopping 18 World  Golf Championships and has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He has also been named PGA Player of the Year 11 times.

40. Ellen DeGeneres

One of the queens of daytime television couldn't hack it for more than a semester at the University of New Orleans. Ellen DeGeneres said that school just wasn't interesting to her.

DeGeneres later went on to pursue a career in TV sitcoms, stand-up comedy, movies, and talk shows.

41. David Murdock

Not only did David Murdock not finish college, but he was also a high school dropout. Murdock only made it to the 9th grade in high school before dropping out and later serving in World War II in the U.S. Army.

Later, Murdock became the CEO of Dole Food Company, and he also ran Castle & Cooke, a real estate company that owns properties in several U.S. states.

42. David Neeleman

David Neeleman is the founder of JetBlue Airways, and his explanation of his college experience is simple. He says he attended the University of Utah, but “I dropped out.” Even though he was an A student in college, his horizons were broadened when he traveled to Brazil to complete a Mormon missionary trip. He decided to start his own travel company, and the rest is history. 

43. Harry Truman

It's surprising that so many U.S. presidents never finished a college degree, but this was at a time when education wasn't as attainable as it is today. Harry S. Truman went just one semester at a college in Kansas City, Missouri, but the aspiring entrepreneur also took some business school classes and night classes at the Kansas City Law School. However, he didn't earn a degree. 

Harry Truman | intellectuals who didnt go to college | successful business owners who didnt go to college
President Harry S. Truman portrait (ca. 1947)

44. Ralph Lauren

The founder of the hugely successful Polo brand dropped out of Baruch College in New York City after attending for just two years. At the time, Lauren decided to join the U.S. Army. Now, Lauren is a notable businessman, and he's also a philanthropist. 

In addition to his Polo brand of clothing, Lauren also created Ralph Lauren fragrances that first launched in March 1978 at Bloomingdale's. 

45. Russell Simmons

As the co-founder of Def Jam Recordings, Russell Simmons has been instrumental in helping launch careers for hip-hop and rap artists, including The Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, and Run-DMC.

Simmons did attend college, where he pursued a degree in sociology at the City College of New York. However, he didn't finish his degree and decided to focus on his career in music. In addition to music, Simmons has also ventured into the financial services and clothing business.

46. Kim Kardashian

While Kim Kardashian came to fame with a scandalous start, she later went on to star in her family's reality TV show. Kardashian used her high profile to skyrocket to wealth with businesses such as Skims and KKW Beauty. She has also ventured into fragrances.

While Kardashian attended Pierce College, she ended up dropping out. Now, she is in the process of becoming a self-taught lawyer, and all without obtaining a university degree or going to law school.

47. William McKinley

Like Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley dropped out of college and later became the most powerful man in the world as president of the United States. McKinley attended Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, but he never finished his degree. Later in his life, McKinley said that not finishing his degree was one of his greatest life regrets. 

48. Lady Gaga

Many people assume that because she's a classically trained musician, Lady Gaga has a degree in music. Although she did attend Tisch Drama at New York University, she never finished her degree. 

Lady Gaga went on to sell more than 170 million records, and she has earned two Golden Globe Awards, 13 Grammy Awards, and 18 MTV Video Music Awards. She has also ventured into the cosmetics industry and founded a non-profit organization. 

49. Daniel Ek

The CEO and founder of Shopify only made it eight weeks at Sweden's KTH Royal  Institute of Technology, where he studied engineering. After dropping out of college to focus on his career in IT, Ek helped found an auction company that eBay acquired in 2006.

Ek was also instrumental in the development of several other companies, including one that made him wealthy: Advertigo. When he sold Advertigo, he retired, but he couldn't sit still for long. That's when he founded Shopify.

50. Kat Cole

As the former president of the parent company that owns Cinnabon and other chains, Kat Cole is a successful businesswoman who dropped out of college to work at Hooters, where she eventually become a vice president when she was in her 20s. Interestingly, although Cole never earned a bachelor's degree, she did later pursue a graduate degree and earned an MBA. 

51. Frank Lloyd Wright

Who knew you could become one of the world's leading architects without a degree in architecture? The famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright enrolled part-time at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but that was where his college career started and ended. Wright has been called the most important architect of the 20th century, and he later designed the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. 

Final Thoughts on Successful People Who Didn't Go To or Finish College

Whether you have just graduated from high school and are feeling uncertain about your next steps, or you’ve done the college thing and want something different from life, remember that there are many options and paths available to you. College is not the only route to a successful and fulfilling career or life.

You can also achieve great things through self-education, hard work, and dedication. If you are looking for some encouragement as an entrepreneur, check out our article on the 21 Best Business Podcasts for Entrepreneurs.

Finally, if you want to take your goal-setting efforts to the next level, check out this FREE printable worksheet and a step-by-step process that will help you set effective SMART goals.

successful people who didn't go to college | successful entrepreneurs who didnt go to college | successful college dropouts
51 Successful People Who Didn\'t Go to or Finish College