9 Famous College Dropouts

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Conventional wisdom tells us that a college degree will get you much further than only a high school diploma. But what about those who choose to cut out while pursuing their higher educations and go it alone, free from the constraints of academia? Do they ever prosper? Here are some individuals who succeeded, and how.

1. Steven Spielberg

Unlike Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and other film school-trained directors, Steven Spielberg was thrice denied entry into USC's elite directing program due to his C-average. He was eventually admitted into the film program at California State University, Long Beach, but dropped out in 1968 to make a 22-minute film entitled Amblin. It was that film that landed him a television-directing contract with Universal, making Spielberg the youngest director ever to be signed for a long-term deal with a major Hollywood studio. In 2002, Spielberg completed his degree with Long Beach State via independent projects. He also received an honorary degree earlier this year from BU.

Candid video of Spielberg receiving his degree from BU:

2. Harry Truman

harry-truman-pictureThe 33rd President of the United States is also the only one post 1897 who didn't earn a college degree. Truman dreamt of attending college at West Point, but family financial difficulties forced him to work instead. Among Truman's early odd jobs were railroad timekeeper, bank clerk and mailroom attendant for the Kansas City Star. Truman did study law for a couple of years at the Kansas City Law School (now the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law), but eventually dropped out due to time constraints. At the age of 60, the college honored the former President by inviting him to become a member of their Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity, which Truman accepted. Today there are two colleges named after Truman. Northeast Missouri State University was renamed Truman State University in 1996 to honor the only Missourian to become President, and in Chicago, Illinois there's Harry S. Truman College.

Harry Truman on education: "When you get an education, that is something nobody can take from you—money is only temporary—but what you have in your head, if you have the right kind of head, stays with you."

3. Ellen DeGeneres

ellen_degeneresBorn and raised in Metairie, Louisiana, it makes sense that Ellen attended the University of New Orleans. What doesn't make sense is that this smart cookie only lasted one semester before taking a job as a clerk at her cousin's law firm. From there she held a series of David Sedaris-esque jobs: working as a bartender, waitressing at TGIF's, shucking oysters, painting houses, and even selling clothes at the local Merry-Go-Round at the Lakeside Shopping Center in New Orleans.

Here's a hilarious soundbite of Ellen giving a commencement speech at Tulane earlier this year (my personal fav quote: "I'm not saying you wasted your time or money, but look at me, I'm a huge celebrity.")

4. Bill Gates

Bill_GatesBill Gates may have had the SAT scores to get into Harvard, (he scored a 1590 which corresponds to an IQ of 170) but he certainly didn't have the stamina to stay in school. Gates spent most of his time using the school's computers, and eventually left the renowned Ivy League institution his sophomore year to start Microsoft (then called Micro-Soft). Not all of Gate's time at Harvard was for naught, however. In fact, it was at Harvard that he met Steve Ballmer, who later became the CEO of Microsoft. Gates returned to his alma mater 33 years later in June of 2007, where he received an honorary doctorate.

Gates speaking after receiving his honorary doctorate:

5. Ted Turner

ted_turner-afThe founder of CNN was also a bit of a tomcat as an undergrad. Turner's father was a wealthy billboard magnate and was able to give his son the best education money could buy. Ted attended Brown University, where he majored in classics, a choice that horrified his father. Ted ultimately switched his major to economics, but was expelled for having a female student in his dorm room. Turner was never an outstanding student but managed to apply what little knowledge he learned form those boring economics courses into his father's business. He took over his father's company at the age of 24 and turned it into the global enterprise it is today.

Turner on studying Classics at Brown: "I would have not been as successful if it had not been for my classical background... it made me a better businessman."

6. John Glenn

glenn300The first American to orbit the Earth also studied chemistry at Muskingum College in New Concord, Ohio. It was there that he received his pilots license in 1941. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Glenn dropped out of college and enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He flew 59 combat missions over the South Pacific during World War II, and continued flying military aircraft well into the Korean War. His wingman on a few of those Korean missions was none other than future baseball hall-of-famer, Ted Williams. Glenn never finished college, but it was his expertise as a fighter pilot that impressed NASA enough to pick him as one of the original astronauts for their Mercury Project.

John Glenn on his alma mater: "I've always believed that New Concord and Muskingum College are the center of the universe, because if you get your start here, you can go anywhere."

7. Jack Kerouac

jackToday he's known for his spontaneous prose, best represented in 1957's On the Road, but early in his life, Jack Kerouac was just another jock on a football scholarship. Kerouac, who received an athletic scholarship to attend Columbia University in New York, argued constantly with his coach and was benched through most of his freshman season. His football career ended after he cracked his tibia, and he subsequently dropped out. Although his time there was brief, Kerouac would meet Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady at Columbia. These early relationships would forge the foundation for what would become The Beat Generation.

8. James Dean

james-dean-729587Shortly after graduating from Fairmount High School in Indiana, James Dean moved to California and enrolled in Santa Monica College. At SMC, Dean begrudgingly majored in pre-law to satisfy a controlling father, but eventually changed his major to drama and transferred to UCLA. His father disapproved, of course, and the two were estranged for the rest of Dean's life. While at UCLA, Dean beat out hundreds of actors for the role of Malcolm in Macbeth. In January, 1951, he dropped out of UCLA to pursue a full-time acting career. His first professional gig was for this Pepsi commercial.

9. Woody Allen

woody_allenWoody Allen always wanted to make movies and after high school, enrolled in the film program at New York University. But Woody could never stay focused and spent most of his time writing jokes for local newspaper columnists. He was eventually expelled from NYU after failing a film course and briefly attended City College of New York, but dropped out. He may not have been a committed student, but making $75 a week, the 19-year-old had good reason to drop out, as he was making far more than his parents writing comedy bits for the radio personality Herb Shriner.

Woody Allen (stand-up) on his college experience: "I was thrown out of college for cheating on the metaphysics exam; I looked into the soul of the boy next to me."

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October 5, 2009 - 5:07am
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