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Famous Dropouts: No College Degree, Just the School of Hard Knocks?

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Do you know what Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Michael Dell had in common apart from the computer industry? What about actor Tom Hanks and talk show queen Ellen DeGeneres?

These information technology CEOs and famous celebrities—along with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg; media mogul Oprah Winfrey; award-winning newscaster Brian Williams; celebrated American author Maya Angelou; and astronaut-turned-politician John Glenn, just to name a few—all climbed the ladder of success after dropping out of college or never even going to college in the first place.

College Graduates Earn More

In the United States, a country founded by immigrants that believed determination and hard work were the keys to a successful life, a college degree has become synonymous with a flourishing career and subsequent comfortable lifestyle. A degree is almost considered the golden ticket—we’re all told that without one, you won’t amount to much.

Research shows that college graduates generally earn more than those with high school diplomas. For example, data compiled by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics found that in 2009, young adult males with a bachelor’s degree earned an average of $51,000 while their female counterparts earned $40,100. Young adult males with high school diplomas (or equivalent) earned significantly less—an average of $32,900 while their female counterparts earned $25,000.

Highest Paying College Majors

Keep in mind, though, that your choice of college major and career path also play a large role in your potential earnings. Some college degrees pay off much more than others. “Getting a college degree matters, but what you take matters more,” Anthony Carnevale, the director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, told USA Today. in May 2011

According to a press release issued by the Center, U.S. Census data found that petroleum engineering majors earn median salaries of $120,000 per year while counseling/psychology majors bring home roughly $29,000 per year.

Famous College Dropouts

That’s not to say success is mandated by a college degree—after all, let’s not forget about Steve Jobs, Tom Hanks, and the others mentioned at the start of this blog post. Here are some other well-to-do college dropouts profiled by Paul Schmitz in this CNN Opinion column:

- Woody Allen, Oscar-winning actor and filmmaker

- Scott Walker, Republican Governor of Wisconsin

- Larry Ellison, co-founder and CEO of Oracle Corporation

- Anna Wintour, Vogue editor-in-chief

- Ralph Lauren, fashion designer and founder of Polo Ralph Lauren

- David Plouffe, senior advisor to President Barack Obama

There are thousands of other success stories out there, people that attended the “school of hard knocks” rather than a prestigious college or university. In a New York Times opinion page, The Education of Millionaires author Michael Ellsberg reminded readers that “You don’t learn how to network crouched over a desk studying for multiple-choice exams. You learn it outside the classroom, talking to fellow human beings face-to-face.”

Ellsberg correctly pointed out that classroom skills and credentials such as a college degree may offer a slight advantage in the professional world, but academic requirements listed in job ads are typically negotiable while real-world results and enthusiasm are hard to fake.

College Degrees: Not the Only Keys to Success

It’s also important to remind yourself that most famous college dropouts became successful due to their high intelligence, motivation and drive, not the fact that they quit school. After all, as Michael Bastedo, Associate Professor at the Center for the University of Michigan’s Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education, points out in the Huffington Post column Let’s Stop Celebrating College Dropouts, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg left Harvard, Michael Dell quit UT-Austin, and Steve Jobs left Reed College—high-caliber schools that are tough to get into. Schools that are quite different than community colleges that accept anyone who applies.

So what is the moral of this famous college dropout story? A college degree can most likely help you earn a better salary, but you might have that degree in the first place because you’re a driven, successful person.

Related Posts:

College Dropouts: 10 Reasons Why Students Quit School

College Dropouts are Costing Taxpayers Billions of Dollars

College Rejection Letters Can Open New Doors


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.

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