You won’t believe some of the people on this list of successful high school and college dropouts.
Can dropouts from high school and college become successful contributors to society?
People like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, and MGM co-founder Marcus Lowe are prime examples of successful people. These are people who didn’t go to college or didn’t finish college.
Is education important? Yes of course.
But is a formal education; public, private or parochial school and college—are they critical to success. Yes . . . and no.
While researching the education chapter for our book The MoneySmart Family System, we came across some very interesting information. We found a list of very successful people who didn’t “succeed” in traditional educational environments.
It’s a rather amazing list of world-changing men and women. These people didn’t follow the conventional course through the education system. Some dropped out of high school, and others dropped out of college. But one thing they didn’t drop out of was learning and reaching for excellence.
It seems that some people learn from formal education and others learn from life itself.
If you have a student who is motivated to work and discover and achieve, but doesn’t fit the mold of the education system—let them try something else . . . just like these folks.
112 Men and Women who were college dropouts, but stepped up.
Successful High School Dropouts and College Dropouts
This list is sorted by the person’s first name.
- Abraham Lincoln, lawyer, U.S. president. Finished one year of formal schooling, self-taught himself trigonometry, and read Blackstone on his own to become a lawyer.
- Amadeo Peter Giannini, multimillionaire founder of Bank of America. Dropped out of high school.
- Andrew Carnegie, industrialist and philanthropist, and one of the first mega-billionaires in the US. Elementary school dropout.
- Andrew Jackson, U.S. president, general, attorney, judge, congressman. Home-schooled. Became a practicing attorney by the age of 35 – without a formal education.
- Andrew Perlman, co-founder of GreatPoint. Dropped out of Washington University to start Cignal Global Communications, an Internet communications company, when he was only 19.
- Anne Beiler, multimillionaire co-founder of Auntie Anne’s Pretzels. Dropped out of high school.
- Ansel Adams, a world-famous photographer. Dropped out of high school.
- Aretha Franklin – Singer and entertainer. She was a child prodigy and recorded her first tracks at the age of fourteen years old. She dropped out of high school when she was fifteen years old to care for her first child.
- Ashley Qualls, the founder of Whateverlife.com (now defunct), left high school at the age of 15 to devote herself to building her website business. She had more than a million dollars by the time she was seventeen years old. Learn more about Ashley on Wikipedia.
- Barbara Lynch, chef, owner of a group of restaurants, worth over $10 million, in Boston. Another successful high school dropout.
- Barry Diller, billionaire, Hollywood mogul, Internet maven, founder of Fox Broadcasting Company, chairman of IAC/InterActive Corp (owner of Ask.com) which includes Home Shopping Network and Ticketmaster. He also started Fox Broadcasting Company.
- Benjamin Franklin, inventor, scientist, author, entrepreneur. Primarily home-schooled.
- Ben Kaufman, a 21-year-old serial entrepreneur, founder of Kluster. Dropped out of college in his freshman year.
- Bill Gates. Ranked as the world’s richest person from 1995-2006, Bill Gates was a college drop out. He started the largest computer software company, Microsoft Corporation. Gates and his wife are philanthropists, starting The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with a focus on global health and learning.
- Billy Joe (Red) McCombs, billionaire, founder of Clear Channel media, real estate investor. Dropped out of law school to sell cars in 1950.
- Bob Proctor, motivational speaker, bestselling author, and co-founder of Life Success Publishing. He attended two months of high school.
- Bram Cohen, BitTorrent developer. Attended State University of New York at Buffalo for a year.
- Carl Lindner, billionaire investor, founder of United Dairy Farmers. Dropped out of high school at the age of 14.
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- Charles Culpeper, owner, and CEO of Coca Cola is another example of a successful high school dropout.
- Christopher Columbus, explorer, discoverer of new lands. Primarily home-schooled.
- Coco Chanel, founder of fashion brand Chanel. A perfume bearing her name, Chanel No. 5 kept her name famous. An orphan for many years, Gabrielle Coco Chanel trained as a seamstress. Determined to invent herself, she threw out the ideas that the fashion world deemed feminine, boldly using fabric and styles normally reserved for men
- Colonel Harlan Sanders, founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC). He dropped out of elementary school, later earned a law degree by correspondence.
- Craig McCaw, the billionaire founder of McCaw Cellular. He did not complete college.
- Dave Thomas, the billionaire founder of Wendy’s. Dropped out of high school at 15.
- David Geffen, the billionaire founder of Geffen Records and co-founder of DreamWorks. Dropped out of college after completing one year.
- David Green, the billionaire founder of Hobby Lobby. Started the Hobby Lobby chain with only $600. High school graduate.
- David H. Murdock – Dole Foods retired CEO. The self-made billionaire businessman dropped out of high school in the ninth grade and worked at a gas station before being drafted into the Army in 1943. In 2013 he took Dole Foods private in a deal that valued the company at $1.6 billion.
- David Karp, founder of Tumblr. Dropped out of school at 15, then homeschooled. He did not attend college.
- David Neeleman, founder of JetBlue airlines. Dropped out of college after three years.
- David Ogilvy, advertising executive, and copywriter. Was expelled from Oxford University at the age of 20.
- David Oreck, multimillionaire founder of The Oreck Corporation. Quit college to enlist in the Army Air Corps.
- Dean Kamen a prolific and ingenious inventor, dropped out of Worcester Polytechnic Institute before graduating. Although best known for the Segway PT, Kamen holds more than 80 US patents and has created many products such as the AutoSyringe and iBOT robotic wheelchair. When Kamen travels to work, he has to decide which of his two helicopters to take. For longer trips, he pilots his own private jet. He also owns a small island near Connecticut that generates its own electricity from the wind.
- Debbi Fields, founder of Mrs. Fields Chocolate Chippery. As a young, 20-year-old housewife with no business experience, Debbi Fields started Mrs. Fields Chocolate Chippery. With a recipe for chocolate chip cookies, this young woman became the most successful cookie company owner. She later renamed, franchised, then sold Mrs. Field’s Cookies.
- DeWitt Wallace, founder, and publisher of Reader’s Digest. Dropped out of college after one year. He went back, then dropped out again after the second year.
- Dov Charney, founder of American Apparel. He started the company in high school, and never attended college.
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- Dustin Moskovitz, multimillionaire co-founder of Facebook. Harvard dropout.
- Frank Lloyd Wright, the most influential architect of the twentieth century. Never attended high school. He surpassed all odds when he became the most influential architect of the twentieth century. Wright designed more than 1,100 projects with about half actually being built. His designs have inspired numerous architects to look at the beauty around them and add to it.
- Frederick Henry Royce, auto designer, multimillionaire co-founder of Rolls-Royce. Dropped out of elementary school.
- Frederick “Freddy” Laker, billionaire airline entrepreneur. Joins the ranks of successful high school dropouts.
- George Eastman, multimillionaire inventor, Kodak founder. Dropped out of high school.
- George Foreman – Two-time heavy-weight boxing champ and businessman. Foreman dropped out of school in the ninth grade. He was involved with street gangs until he joined the Job Corps in 1965. That’s when he first started to train as a boxer.
- George Naddaff, founder of UFood Grill and Boston Chicken. Did not attend college.
- Gurbaksh Chahal, multimillionaire founder of BlueLithium and Click Again. Dropped out at 16, when he founded Click Again.
- H. Wayne Huizenga, the founder of WMX garbage company, helped build the Blockbuster video chain. Joined the Army out of high school, and later went to college only to drop out during his first year.
- Henry Ford, the billionaire founder of Ford Motor Company. He did not attend college. At age 16, Henry Ford left home to apprentice as a machinist. Ford’s first major success, the Model T, allowed Ford to open a large factory and later start the assembly line production, revolutionalizing the auto-making industry.
- Henry J. Kaiser, multimillionaire & founder of Kaiser Aluminum. Dropped out of high school.
- Hilary Swank –The Oscar-winning actress and star of Buffy the VAmpier Slayer dropped out of high school around the age of sixteen. She said, “I’m not proud to say I’m a high school dropout.” She left high school to pursue an acting career.
- Hyman Golden, co-founder of Snapple. Dropped out of high school.
- Ingvar Kamprad, He founder of IKEA, one of the richest people in the world, suffers from dyslexia.
- Isaac Merrit Singer, sewing machine inventor, founder of Singer. Elementary school dropout.
- Jack Crawford Taylor, founder of Enterprise Rent-a-Car. Dropped out of college to become a WWII fighter pilot in the Navy.
- Jake Nickell, co-founder, and CEO of Threadless.com. He did not graduate from college.
- James Cameron, Oscar-winning director, screenwriter, and producer. Dropped out of college.
- Jay Van Andel, the billionaire co-founder of Amway. He never attended college.
- Jeffrey Kalmikoff, co-founder and chief creative officer of Threadless.com. He did not graduate from college.
- Jerry Yang, co-founder of Yahoo! Dropped out of Ph.D. program.
- Jimmy Dean, multimillionaire founder of Jimmy Dean Foods. Dropped out of high school at 16.
- John D. Rockefeller Sr., the billionaire founder of Standard Oil. Dropped out of high school just two months before graduating, though later took some courses at a local business school.
- John Mackey, founder of Whole Foods. Enrolled and dropped out of college six times.
- John Paul DeJoria, the billionaire co-founder of John Paul Mitchell Systems, founder of Patron Spirits tequila. Joined the Navy after high school.
- Joyce C. Hall, founder of Hallmark. Started selling greeting cards at the age of 18. Did not attend college.
- Kemmons Wilson, a multimillionaire, founder of Holiday Inn. High school dropout.
- Kenneth Hendricks, the billionaire founder of ABC Supply. High school dropout.
- Kenny Johnson, founder of Dial-A-Waiter restaurant delivery. College dropout.
- Kevin Rose, founder of Digg.com. Dropped out of college during his second year.
- Kirk Kerkorian, the billionaire investor, owner of Mandalay Bay and Mirage Resorts, and MGM movie studio. Dropped out eighth-grade.
- Larry Ellison, the billionaire co-founder of Oracle software company. Dropped out of two different colleges. In 1977, Larry Ellison put up $2,000 to start what would become Oracle Corporation, the world’s second-largest software company. Ellison briefly attended the University of Illinois as well as the University of Chicago but received a degree from neither. Today he is known for his extravagant lifestyle. He owns a 450 ft, $200 million yacht, exotic cars including a McLaren F1, over a dozen multi-million dollar estates in California, and several jets, which he is licensed to pilot himself.
- Leandro Rizzuto, the billionaire founder of Conair. Dropped out of college. Started Conair with $100 and hot-air hair roller invention.
- Leslie Wexner, the billionaire founder of a Limited Brands. Dropped out of law school. Started the Limited with $5,000.
- Marc Rich, commodities investor, billionaire. Founder of Marc Rich & Co. Did not finish college.
- Marcus Loew, multimillionaire founder of Loew’s theaters, co-founder of MGM movie studio. Elementary school dropout.
- Mark Ecko, founder of Mark Ecko Enterprises. Dropped out of college.
- Mary Kay Ash, founder of Mary Kay Inc. Did not attend college. While she didn’t have a college education or any training, she successfully created a brand known throughout the world. To date, nearly half a million women have started Mary Kay businesses, selling cosmetics. Their appreciation for Mary Kay Ash is unwavering.
- Michael Dell, the billionaire founder of Dell Computers, which started out of his college dorm room. Dropped out of college. With $1,000, dedication and desire, Michael Dell dropped out of college at age 19 to start PC’s Limited, later named Dell, Inc. Dell became the most profitable PC manufacturer in the world with revenues of $57.4 billion in 2007. In 1996, The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation offered a $50 million grant to The University of Texas at Austin to be used for children’s health and education in the city.
- Michael Rubin, founder of Global Sports. Dropped out of college in his first year.
- Micky Jagtiani, billionaire retailer, Landmark International. Dropped out of accounting school.
- Milton Hershey, founder of Hershey’s Milk Chocolate. With only a fourth grade education, Milton Hershey started his own chocolate company. Hershey’s Milk Chocolate became the first nationally marketed chocolate. Hershey also focused on building a wonderful community for his workers, known as Hershey, Pennsylvania.
- Nicole Kidman – Actress attended North Sydney Girls’ High School when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She dropped out of school when she was seventeen years old to help support the family as a massage therapist. Later, when her mother had recovered she attended the Victorian College of the Arts and the Australian Theatre for Young People. She joins the ranks of successful high school dropouts also.
- Paul Allen befriended Bill Gates while they were both attending a private school in Seattle. Allen went on to attend Washington State University but dropped out after two years. He was also the one who convinced Bill Gates to drop out of Harvard in order to start Microsoft. The two co-founded the company in 1975, but Allen has distanced himself from the company since then. In addition to more than 100 million shares of Microsoft, Allen owns 12 professional sports teams, plenty of real estate, and has stakes in dozens of technology and media companies such as Dreamworks Studios.
- Pete Cashmore, founder of Mashable.com at the age of 19.
- Philip Green, Topshop billionaire retail mogul. Dropped out of high school.
- Quentin Tarantino – The Oscar-winning Actor dropped out at 15 from Narbonne High School in Harbor City, California. He started working as an usher at an adult film theater while taking acting classes.
- Rachael Ray, Food Network cooking show star, food industry entrepreneur, with no formal culinary arts training. Never attended college. She has also appeared in magazines as well having her own magazine debut in 2006. She knew she was a success when a website dedicated to bashing her was created.
- Ralph Lauren In high school, Ralph Lauren was known to sell neckties to his fellow students. In his yearbook, he stated that he wanted to be a millionaire. He studied business for two years at Baruch College but never graduated. Nonetheless, he has far surpassed his goal of becoming a millionaire. In 2006, Polo Ralph Lauren had a net income of $300 million. He’s a surprising member of successful high school dropouts also.
- Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald’s. Dropped out of high school.
- Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of Virgin Records, Virgin Atlantic Airways, Virgin Mobile, and more. Dropped out of high school at 16. He is best known for his thrill-seeking spirit and outrageous business tactics. At the age of 16, he started his first successful business venture, Student Magazine. He is the owner of the Virgin brand and its 360 companies.
- Richard DeVos, co-founder of Amway. Served in the Army and did not attend college.
- Richard Schulze, Best Buy founder. Did not attend college.
- Rob Kalin, founder of Etsy. Flunked out of high school, enrolled in art school for a time, faked a student ID at MIT so he could take classes. His professors subsequently helped him get into NYU, they were so impressed.
- Ron Popeil, multimillionaire founder of Ronco, inventor, producer, infomercial star. Did not finish college.
- Rush Limbaugh, multi-millionaire media mogul, radio talk show host. Dropped out of college.
- Russell Simmons, co-founder of Def Jam records, founder of Russell Simmons Music Group, Phat Farm fashions, bestselling author. Did not finish college.
- S. Daniel Abraham, founder of Slim-Fast, billionaire. Did not attend college.
- Sean John Combs, entertainer, producer, fashion designer, and entrepreneur. Never finished college.
- Shawn Fanning, developer of Napster. Dropped out of college at the age of 19.
- Simon Cowell, TV producer, music judge, American Idol, The X Factor, and Britain’s Got Talent. High school dropout. His first job was in a mailroom for a music publishing company. He has since become an Artist and Repertoire (A&R) executive for Sony BMG in the UK, and a television producer.
- Steve Jobs. After attending one semester of college, Steve Jobs took a job with Atari. After that, we founded Apple Computers with friend Steve Wozniak. Today, without the word “Computers” in their name, Apple is seen as one of the most innovative companies in the world that has created successful products like the iPod, iTunes, iPads and of course the perennially popular iPhone?
Steve Jobs was also the CEO and co-founder of Pixar before it merged with Walt Disney. In addition to being the CEO of Apple Inc, Steve Jobs became the largest individual shareholder of the Walt Disney Company after selling Pixar Animation Studios in 2006. In 2007, he was chosen as Fortune Magazine’s most powerful businessman. That’s quite an honor for someone who dropped out of college after just one semester. Although his yearly salary was officially just $1, Jobs has received “executive gifts” including a $46 million jet and nearly 30 million shares of restricted stock. Because capital gains are taxed at a lower rate than salary income, this is also a tax minimization strategy. Sadly the great innovator, Steve Jobs passed away from pancreatic cancer in October of 2011.
- Steve Madden, shoe designer. Dropped out of college.
- Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, billionaire. Did not complete college.
- Ted Murphy, founder of social media company Izea Entertainment. Dropped out of college.
- Theodore Waitt, the billionaire founder of Gateway Computers. Dropped out of college to start Gateway – one semester before graduating.
- Thomas Edison, the inventor of the lightbulb, phonograph, and more. Primarily home-schooled, then joined the railroad when he was only 12.
- Tom Anderson, the co-founder and “friend” of MySpace. Dropped out of high school.
- Ty Warner, billionaire developer of Beanie Babies, real estate investor, and hotel owner. Dropped out of college. Ty, Inc., made $700 million in a single year with the Beanie Babies craze without spending money on advertising! He has since expanded to include Ty Girlz dolls, directly competing with Bratz dolls.
- Vidal Sassoon, founder of Vidal Sassoon, multimillionaire. Dropped out of high school.
- W. Clement Stone, the multimillionaire insurance man, author, founder of Success magazine. Dropped out of elementary school. Later attended high school, graduating. Attended but did not finish college.
- W.T. Grant, founder of W.T. Grant department stores, multimillionaire. Dropped out of high school.
- Wally “Famous” Amos, the multimillionaire entrepreneur, author, talent agent, founder of Famous Amos cookies. Left high school at 17 to join the Air Force.
- Walt Disney, founder of the Walt Disney Company. Dropped out of high school at 16, but Walt Disney’s career and accomplishments are astounding. The most influential animator, Disney holds the record for the most awards and nominations. Disney’s imagination included cartoons and theme parks. The Walt Disney Company now has annual revenue exceeding $30 billion.
- Wolfgang Puck, chef, owner of 16 restaurants, and 80 bistros, quit school at the age of 14.
- Y.C. Wang, the billionaire founder of Formosa Plastics. Did not attend high school.
The material found for high school and college dropouts at the following websites:
- Entrepreneur Magazine has several articles on people who became successful without a college degree.
- Inc42.com Article on successful entrepreneurs who didn’t need college.
- Business Insider: Highly Successful High School Drop Outs
These articles will be super helpful if you or your child want to get a college degree without accumulating a lot of debt.