12 Wildly Successful College Dropouts

Updated: June 03, 2010

We often put so much emphasis on the importance of college that it's become normal to think that anyone without a degree will either be unable or have an incredibly hard time finding a reputable, well-paying career. Although it is an important tool, college is not essential to pursuing success and making all of one's dreams come true -- and there's proof of that in many of today's millionaires and celebrities. Here are 12 wildly successful college dropouts.

Simon Cowell

Simon Cowell is best known as the acid-tongued anchor of the American Idol judging panel, spouting criticisms that often, more or less, amount to nothing more than blatant insults. Only very rarely is the quick-witted Cowell sufficiently put in his place. Simon Cowell was born in October of 1959, in the city of Brighton, England. From the outset, his school life was tumultuous. Cowell had been ejected from 16 schools by the age of 16 - either for rebuking teachers with his now-legendry acerbic wit, or for rocking v-necks with deeper plunges than British school standards would allow. The 16th dismissal, it seems, was the straw that broke the camel's back: Cowell dropped out of school to take a mailroom job with his father's employer, music giant EMI. After only a few years sorting letters, Cowell was able to snag a job as a producer for EMI. In the early 80s, he decided to launch his own label, E&S, which was unfortunately about as successful as Paula Abdul's attempts at coherent speech. Cowell wasn't discouraged, however - he just plunged the V ever further, got a five-dollar 80s haircut, and started yet another label, Fanfare. Unlike his first foray into business, Fanfare became a success, and paved the way for Cowell's successful future.

Bill Gates

Bill Gates had a great reason for dropping out of Harvard: so he could BS one of the world's most prominent computer companies into believing he had developed a new BASIC language that he hadn't even started writing. It definitely paid off in the long run. Bill Gates went from a pale young man to a pale older man with a ton of money and one of the most powerful companies in the world. All the while, Gates found the time to be a major philanthropist, a bad-ass, and a sexual dynamo. Gates stands astride the globe, and his company's innovations can be seen in every nation of the world. Though many claim he is beginning to lose the war to Captain Turtleneck, his place in revolutionizing the computer industry will never be forgotten.

Russell Simmons

Russell Simmons is without a doubt one of the biggest mac daddies of the hip-hop scene. Simmons dropped out of City College in New York at 20-years-old to pursue a career in producing after hearing Eddie Cheeba laying out some rhymes in an NYC club. Not only did he go on to co-found Def Jam records with Rick Rubin, but Simmons was instrumental in getting Run-DMC their big start. He negotiated a deal with MTV that saw the group becoming the first rap act to be seen on the channel -- imagine life without 'Tricky'. Yeah, didn't think so. Simmons eventually supplemented his already hefty producing income by founding the clothing lines Phat Farm, Argyleculture, and American Classics. He is now reputedly the fourth-richest man in hip hop, with an estimated net worth of around $340 million. To put that in perspective: You know someone's got their stuff together when an interviewer simply asks them, 'what is cool?'

Sir Alan Michael Sugar

Sir Alan Michael Sugar is living the dream. He went from selling second-hand audio components to make ends meet to having the opportunity to assert that he is not Mary Poppins on national television. Sugar came from a relatively poor London family and early on took to entrepreneurship, dropping out of high school at age 16 to sell fruit out of the back of a truck he had purchased with his savings. As time passed, and after some very successful business ventures and investments, the fruit lined up cherry, cherry, cherry. Sugar hit the jackpot and became one of the wealthiest men in England. In recent years, the businessman has been very much in the public eye, starring in the British version of The Apprentice. He currently has a net worth of over $1.5 billion, which is enough to buy a nice island or a really crappy country.

Steve Jobs

Who hasn't heard of Steve Jobs? He began as a geeky boy, developing groundbreaking computer technology that even got Bill Gates' "Microsoft" pretty excited. He left Apple for a span of years, only to return as the prodigal son to bring the company back out of the funk of its 1990s obscurity to the position of popularity it enjoys today. Jobs did it all with scarcely a college education, having completed a mere six months of his degree at Reed College due to financial difficulties. Today, Apple is a complete powerhouse of a company and one of the world's most globally recognizable brands. It is responsible for a wide range of incredibly successful and popular products - Apple products occupy a significant part of the buyers market in a number of areas, from desktop computers, to laptops, to personal music players.

James Cameron

Who would have ever thought the (self-proclaimed) ‘King of the World' would hail from a small town in Canada? James Francis Cameron was born in 1952 in Kapuskasing, Ontario, and vowed to break free of the confines of his milquetoast middle name at an early age. From the moment he saw Kubrick's 2001: a Space Odyssey, Cameron knew he wanted to be a director. Not only did the film inspire Cameron's filmmaking career - he modelled his personality after the oh-so-affable HAL 9000. Years later, when his father's job forced his family to relocate to LA, Cameron's desire to be a director reached fever pitch. He was so close to Hollywood, yet, without a licence to drive, he was still so far away. He began studying Physics at Fullerton College because of his interest in science, then, unhappy with his choice, changed to English. Finally, realizing that his true passions lay in neither of these two fields, he dropped out of college altogether. Today, Cameron is known as one of the most successful directors in the world, having directed the two highest grossing films of the modern era. His films have almost always played out in the science fiction genre with which he was originally so enamored, having directed films with android heroes and villains, , and blue cat-people having weird tail-sex.

Mark Zuckerberg

At 26, Mark Zuckerburg is one of the youngest billionaires in the world, and maybe he deserves it -- it takes guts to decide Harvard University just isn't the place for you and your talents would be better suited elsewhere. Remember when Facebook was called The Facebook? One could only join the network after asking a set of questions specific to his or her college. Though Zuckerburg is currently taking a lot of flack for using his creation to ‘spy' on people, isn't that what we've all used it for since it's inception into mainstream culture?

Tom Hanks

Tom Hanks was studying theatre at Sacramento State, but dropped out when he got the opportunity to take a more practical approach to the acting biz with a full-time internship at the Great Lakes Theatre Festival. Hanks' film acting career certainly started quite strong; the young, Shakespearean-trained actor landed roles in films with such compelling subject matter as hot mermaids and coke-snorting donkeys. But, for some strange reason, this wasn't enough for Hanks - if twitter existed in the early 90s, Hanks' only post would have been, ‘brb - winning Oscars, lol.' Tom Hanks became only the second actor in history to win back-to-back Oscars for Best Actor, for Philadelphia in 1993 and Forrest Gump in 1994. Hanks was never guaranteed success, but he followed his instincts and dropped out. You know what mama always said: ‘Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get.'

Harrison Ford

Although one of his most famous roles is an adventure-seeking archaeology professor, Harrison Ford actually majored in Philosophy at Ripon College and dropped out before graduating. The wry actor initially found it hard to find anything more than bit parts in Hollywood, and eventually took up carpentry to make ends meet. Ford wasn't content to be just a regular carpenter, so he got a job as a stagehand for the freakin' Doors. He was hanging around in George Lucas' Hollywood home one day installing some cabinets, when George had a bright idea. ‘Hey, when you're done tightening those hinges, why don't you come be in my movie and launch one the biggest acting careers of all time? You know, if you're free.' Today, Ford is undoubtedly one of the most beloved actors in the world. Just don't bother telling him, he already knows.

Tiger Woods

We've all heard about Tiger Wood's mistresses; he's definitely a pro at adultery. But did you know the guy can also play golf? Even before the recent media blow-up over his personal life, Woods was a pretty well known fellow. He is widely considered the greatest golfer of all time, and the fact that he is half Thai has all but eradicated the stereotype of Asians being bad drivers. Because he was readily beating the guys more than four times his age when he was only three years old, it was no surprise when the college scholarship offers came rolling in. Woods accepted an offer from Stanford and settled in a major in Economics, but it was only two short years before the child prodigy dropped out and went back to what he does best: kicking ass at golf, and breaking records like it was going out of fashion.

Lady GaGa

What can you say about Lady Gaga that hasn't been said all ready? Whether you think she is a talented artist or not, it's impossible to deny that she's an influential figure in modern pop music. Gaga was born Stefani Germanotta in New York City. She was enrolled as the Tisch School of the Arts, but dropped out when she decided she was more creative than her classmates and was being more constrained than nurtured by her academic surroundings. Her father promised to pay for one year's rent so Germanotta could focus on trying to break into the music scene, so she found a cheap apartment in the Lower East Side and got to work. After struggling for a while under her original name (and a very different music style), Germanotta decided to Ladify herself. It was her introduction to famed producer and hit-maker RedOne, however, that helped Gaga truly launch her successful career. Since then she hasn't looked back, winning a slew of awards for her music and videos and rocking the world with her avant-guard aesthetic.

Nikola Tesla

Don't let the girly-sounding first name mislead you; Nikola Tesla didn't mess around. The haircut, the tweed suit, the intense stare -- you know he meant business. Tesla attended the Austrian Polytechnic in Graz but cut off ties with everyone, left town, and completely disappeared, leaving friends to think he drowned in some river. Not sati ../../../../site_media/tiny_mce_3231/themes/advanced/langs/en.js" type="text/javascript"> sfied, Tesla later attended the Charles-Ferdinand University in Prague and dropped out of there as well, effectively sticking it to everyone else on this list before they were even born. Tesla went on to become one of the most important electrical scientists in the world and is one of the main reasons that the only candles in your house are the ones you light when you have horizontal company. Hey, remember the Tesla Coils in Command and Conquer: Red Alert 2? Yep, all thanks to Nikola Tesla.

Featured Research
  • BI Buzzwords

    Can you speak data? Business Intelligence (BI) is becoming an absolute must-have in order to compete with over 55% of large companies investing in TWO or more BI tools. To further this point, 89% percent of business leaders think Big Data will have an impact on business operations much like the internet has. more

  • The Social Side of Service

    Did you know that 83% of Twitter users who tweeted a complaint said they loved receiving a response from the brand? In order to provide the best possible service to your customers, you MUST provide service on the channels that they are utilizing. Social customer service might seem scary and undefined, but can be much more effective and less expensive than traditional channels. more

  • Video Conferencing

    For many, the mere mention of video conferencing brings about bad memories of conference rooms full of people staring at a screen with dodgy sound, fuzzy images, and broken connections. What if we were to tell you that over the past decade, video conferencing solutions have evolved to where they are affordable to businesses of every size and have evolved beyond just the standard boardroom. Today, 74% of B2C marketers and 94% of B2B marketers use video in their marketing efforts. more

  • EHR Implementation

    More and more medical practices are selecting and implementing electronic health records (EHR) than ever before. In fact, statistics show that the number of practices who have purchased an EHR has doubled in just three years. That being said, many practices fail to prepare for their new EHR and thus do not gain the full benefits that come with implementing a solution. more

  • Selecting the Right EHR for Your Practice

    The purchase and implementation of an electronic health record (EHR) system is no small feat and is a big step for a practice, small or large, to take. Selecting your new EHR is one of the most important decisions that you will make for your practice. more