People Without a College Degree

Fields where a high proportion of people have no degree

  • People in the arts, music, acting, sports, modeling and fashion design.
  • Technology sector
  • Business leaders/CEOs. A survey conducted by Bloomberg in 2010 show that the “school of hard knocks” was the number one source (tied with the University of California) for CEOs of S&P 500 companies. Harvard was the #3 source (along with the universities of Texas, Missouri, and Wisconsin).
  • Entrepreneurs

Sample list of famous people without college degrees

First some women…

Eleanor Clift, Newsweek reporter.  Went to night school for several years while working as a secretary.  No college degree.

Mary Kay Ash attended college but dropped out after she got married. She started Mary Kay Cosmetics after being passed over for a promotion that was given to a man who she’d trained. The company started as a book Mary Kay intended to help women and turned into a business plan. With the help of her son and $5,000, Mary Kay Cosmetics was created. Mary Kay Inc. was named one of Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work for in America and one of the 10 best companies for women.

Debbi Fields, founder of Mrs. Fields Cookies. Founded the company when she was a 21-year-old mother with no business experience. Did not graduate from college.

Joyce C. Hall, founder of Hallmark. Started selling greeting cards at the age of 18 while living at a YMCA in Kansas City. Did not attend college.

Jane Jacobs, author, political activist, urban planner.  After high school, she worked at a variety of office jobs and as a freelance writer.  She studied for two years at Columbia University’s extension school, but did not graduate.  In her words:  For the first time I liked school and for the first time I made good marks.  This was almost my undoing because after I had garnered, statistically, a certain number of credits I became the property of Barnard College of Columbia, and once I was the property of Barnard I had to take, it seemed, what Barnard wanted me to take, not what I wanted to learn.  Fortunately, my high-school marks had been so bad  that Barnard decided I could not belong to it and I was therefore allowed to continue getting an education.

Elaine Kaufman, owner of Elaine’s restaurant, a Manhattan cultural institution. She barely passed high school. Did not attend college.

Lilly Ledbetter – eligible for AAUW now due to honorary degree.

Harper Lee, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Dropped out of college during her senior year. Moved to New York to become a writer.

Doris Lessing, novelist. At the age of 14, she chose to end her formal schooling. She then worked as a nanny, telephone operator, office worker, stenographer, and journalist. Her first novel was published when she was 31. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007.

Barbara Lynch, chef, owner of a $10 million group of restaurants in Boston. Dropped out of high school to be a runner for local bookies. Later worked for celebrity chef Todd English. “I started my first business venture in high school, placing bets for some of my teachers with bookies in Southie…. I never did homework. I was failing everything. Senior year, they said I would have to go to summer school. There was no way I was doing that, so I dropped out.”

Rosa Parks, civil rights pioneer. Dropped out of high school.

Rachel Ray hasn’t had any formal culinary training, including college, but has several cooking shows on the Food Network, a talk show on NBC, several New York Times bestselling cookbooks, and her own magazine. She got her start teaching cooking classes to customers at Cowan & Lobel, a gourmet market in Albany, New York. The classes showed customers how to cook meals in 30 minutes or less. In 2008, ranked Rachel Ray #76 in Celebrity 100, reporting her earnings at $18 million a year.

J.K. Rowling, bestselling novelist (Harry Potter series), first billionaire author. Never attended college.

Eleanor Roosevelt – Honorary degrees only.

Hilary Swank, actress.  Dropped out of South Pasadena High School to act professionally.  When she was 15, she and her mother headed to Los Angeles with $75 in their pockets.  They lived out of their ’88 Oldsmobile Delta until she found work in TV.  In her words:  I did leave high school my sophomore year, but I got my GED. I wouldn’t ever recommend not going to school. I think it’s case by case. But what’s really important is not just to have a diploma but also to experience life. I’m certainly not very book smart, but I started traveling at 16, and it has enriched me in ways I could never begin to explain. (Time magazine)

Nina Totenberg, radio show host. Dropped out of Boston University.


And some men without degrees…

Michael Dell, the founder and CEO of Dell, Inc., dropped out of college at 19. He first started his computer company in his college dorm room, later using company’s earnings and family loans to expand. In 2008, Forbes ranked Michael Dell #11 in its 400 Richest Americans. As of 2009, he has an estimated net worth of $12.3 billion.

Bill Gates, a college dropout, has been named the richest person in the world by Forbes magazine 27 times. Bill Gates, who was 10 points away from a perfect score on the SAT, enrolled at Harvard College in 1973 only to take a leave of absence two years later to form a partnership with classmate Paul Allen. The partnership became known as Microsoft. In 2007, Bill Gates received an honorary doctorate degree from Harvard University. In 2009, Forbes reports Gates’ net worth at $40 billion.

Bobby Fischer, Grandmaster chess player. A high school dropout.

Robert Frost, poet.  Dropped out of Dartmouth College.

David Geffen, billionaire founder of Geffen Records and co-founder of DreamWorks. Dropped out of the University of Texas at Austin after his freshman year. Also flunked out of Brooklyn College. Admittedly, “I was a lousy student.” Started work by sorting mail at the William Morris Agency.

Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, Inc.  Dropped out of Reed College after one semester.

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