While a college degree is commonly seen as the most surefire path to success, the reality is that many of the most influential and successful figures in history never received one. From U.S. presidents and billionaires to groundbreaking scientists and Academy Award-winning actors, the list of those who made it big without a college degree is long and varied.
The many examples of successful people who didn’t go to college show that a lack of a diploma does not have to set limits to what you can achieve in life. With enough hard work, determination, and passion, you can become a master in any domain you set your mind to, regardless of your formal education.
Here are 23 of the most successful people who did not go to college:
Kobe Bryant was an American basketball player, often known as one of the best players ever to grace the NBA. He played his entire 20-year professional career with the Los Angeles Lakers, where he won five NBA championships. He also received numerous individual accolades during his career, most notably being named the NBA Most Valuable Player in 2008 and being named on the All-NBA team 15 times.
After living in Italy between the ages of six and thirteen, Kobe eventually returned to the States to attend high school in Pennsylvania. After finishing high school, Bryant could have easily attended college due to his excellent SAT scores and shining achievements in high school basketball. But, he decided to forego college and enter the NBA draft instead. Kobe has never regretted the decision, saying that “the best decision I ever made was coming straight to the NBA and skipping college.” This makes him similar to “friendly rival” NBA star Lebron James, who also never attended college.
Arguably the most famous billionaire college dropout, Bill Gates is an American entrepreneur, philanthropist, author, and investor. Gates is best known for co-founding the technology giant Microsoft Corporation alongside Paul Allen. Microsoft made Bill Gates a tremendously wealthy man – he has been featured in the Forbes list of billionaires since 1987 and has earned the top spot for more years than any other person.
Although Gates originally enrolled at the prestigious Harvard University, he eventually dropped out to focus on entrepreneurship. The gamble paid off as Bill Gates is now considered the most important figure in the history of the personal computer.
Despite not finishing college, Gates is an ardent supporter of a college education. He has regularly spoken about issues American universities face, such as low graduation rates and poorly designed financial aid systems. In addition, Gates has heavily supported several educational institutions through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Aubrey Graham, better known by his stage name Drake, is one of the most commercially successful rappers of all time. Drake attended high school at Forest Hill Collegiate Institute, but eventually dropped out (he eventually returned to high school and graduated in 2012) to help his family out financially. The search for earning opportunities led Drake to the entertainment industry, where he played the character “Jimmy” on the Canadian teen soap opera “Degrassi: The Next Generation“.
From there, he transitioned into hip-hop and built a massive, record-breaking career in music. Despite never attending college, Drake’s career has been so influential that he has college courses dedicated to deconstructing his phenomenal success.
Beyonce is arguably the most well-known and critically acclaimed female musician in the world. She first rose to prominence as the lead singer of the girl group Destiny’s Child, but eventually struck out on her own and released several solo albums that have shattered records. Knowles has won multiple Grammy Awards, BET Awards, MTV Video Music Awards, and many more.
During her school years, Beyonce attended many educational institutions focused on the arts – including the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston. Her massive talent for singing and dancing was recognized by her many tutors, but Knowles never pursued arts at a college level. Nowadays, Beyonce has reached a level of success where she is more than just a successful artist – she is seen as a symbol of feminism, black empowerment, and modern culture. And, similarly to Drake, her work has been used in several universities as teaching material.
Ariana Grande is currently one of the most successful female musicians in the world. Grande was heavily invested in both music and theatre from a very early age, which means that she found it tough to attend high school while juggling her work commitments. She eventually managed to graduate from high school, North Broward Preparatory School, in a somewhat non-traditional way. Instead of attending classes in person, her tutors sent her schoolwork so that she could work on her education while also performing on Broadway.
Despite finishing high school, Grande never pursued any further education – by the time she graduated high school, her career was already taking off. The decision proved to be a correct one because her artistry eventually landed her a multi-million dollar career and several Guinness World Records.
William Shakespeare was an English playwright, poet, and actor commonly known as the most important writer in the English language. There are no records of Shakespeare attending university, but that didn’t stop him from becoming one of the most celebrated authors in history. The little formal education Shakespeare received was from a grammar school in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon.
Most biographers agree that Shakespeare started his illustrious career by writing plays. And, interestingly enough, Shakespeares’ lack of higher education did not go unnoticed among his peers. Famous playwright Robert Greene wrote a pamphlet in 1592 criticizing Shakespeare for writing plays without attending university. This only shows that some things never change. Even back then, not having a degree was seen as demonstrating a lack of competence, perhaps even more than today.
If there was one billionaire entrepreneur without a college degree that truly gave Bill Gates a run for his money, it was Steve Jobs. Jobs was the co-founder, chairman, and CEO of Apple Inc., one of the most successful companies in the world.
Jobs was a college dropout as well – he originally attended Reed College for a semester before dropping out. He cited the high cost of tuition as one of the main reasons he decided to leave school. After a few odd-and-ends jobs, Jobs eventually created the Apple I alongside his friend Steve Wozniak (another key figure in the history of Apple.) The rest, as they say, is history. Jobs is a key figure in developing personal computers, smartphones, and portable music players.
Yet another successful musician on our list of successful people who never attended college is Justin Bieber. Bieber was discovered on YouTube by music executive Scooter Braun, which led to him being signed to RBMG Records in 2008. From there, the young artist broke one record after another and became one of the most instantly recognizable stars in the industry. While Justin Bieber has had a fair share of personal troubles, no one can doubt his work ethic and talent – all without attending college.
Kylie Jenner is a socialite, model, entrepreneur, and reality TV star. She is often called the most popular influencer in the world, perhaps rivaled only by her sister, Kim Kardashian. Kylie first rose to prominence through the reality TV show Keeping Up with the Kardashians, which features her entire extended family. However, Kylie soon managed to break out of the shadow of her sisters and build her own successful personal brand.
In addition to being a social media darling, Jenner is also known for her successful cosmetics company, Kylie Cosmetics – a company that is already known as one of the most successful celebrity beauty brands of all time. You may love or hate the Kardashians, but there is no denying that this family has a lot of entrepreneurial spirits. And, only two of the Kardashian children attended college – funnily enough, it is the two with the lowest net worth that holds college degrees. Make of that what you will.
George Washington is one of the most iconic and influential figures in American and world history. He was the first President of the United States, as well as the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. Washington is considered one of the Founding Fathers of America and played a crucial role in shaping early American politics. Despite being one of the most important figures in the development of modern democracy, Washington never studied political science formally. The only formal education he received was from private tutors who taught young Washington subjects such as reading, writing, trigonometry, and geometry.
Abraham Lincoln, one of America’s most famous presidents, had to do manual labor at the family farm and had little access to formal education. In his own words, Abraham Lincoln was educated “by littles”, receiving little chunks of education at a time between his other duties. Nevertheless, the formal learning Lincoln received did not add up to more than a year.
That said, Lincoln was an intense self-learner from a young age – he was fascinated by topics such as English language, philosophy, religion, and history. He voraciously read on all of these topics in his spare time, often borrowing books from neighbors once his reading material was exhausted. Lincoln’s self-education paid off – he later became the 16th U.S. President and is considered one of the most influencial leaders in world history.
Harry Truman was the 33rd President of the United States, serving from 1945 until 1953. He is most famous for leading America through the end of World War II and for his involvement in developing the atomic bomb. In addition, Truman presided over the beginning of the Cold War and is often ranked as one of the most influential American presidents. His approval rating at the time of taking office was also a whopping 87 percent, although it dipped considerably by the end of his term.
Despite his later successes, Truman’s early life was far from exemplary. He studied accounting, shorthand, and typing in college but dropped out after just one year and had a series of unsuccessful business ventures. Eventually, he enlisted in the military and fought in World War I. After the war, Truman entered politics and led a career that culminated in becoming the President of the United States without ever attending college.
Nicki Minaj is arguably the most well-known female rapper in the world. She has had a long and successful career in the music industry, with multiple number-one hits and Grammy nominations under her belt. The high school years of Nicki Minaj were spent at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, which is a school with a focus on the performing arts. Originally, Nicki Minaj wanted to become an actress after graduation, but eventually found massive success in the music industry instead.
Despite never attending college herself, Nicki Minaj appreciates the value of higher education – in 2017, she took to Twitter to offer to pay the tuition fees of her followers who had straight As. And, these were not empty promises either – she followed through and helped out a number of students.
Ernest Hemingway is among the most celebrated authors of the 20th century. His novels and short stories have had a lasting impact on American literature, with many of his works being adapted into movies and stage plays.
After finishing high school in Oak Park, Illinois, Hemingway started working as a reporter for The Kansas City Star. Hemingway has credited his short six-month stint as a reporter for helping develop his concise, sharp writing style. After working as a reporter, Hemingway joined the Red Cross as an ambulance driver during World War I. It was during this time that he was injured and subsequently hospitalized in Milan – an experience which would later inspire his novel “A Farewell to Arms.”
Hemingway never went to college, but he did receive some formal teaching in writing while working as a reporter for The Kansas City Star. This, combined with his drive and intense life experience, helped him become one of the greats of American literature.
Henry Ford was an American businessman and founder of the Ford Motor Company. He is credited with revolutionizing the automotive industry by developing the assembly line method of production. The change in production methodology resulted in a massive increase in efficiency and helped to make cars more affordable for the average consumer.
Ford did not attend college, instead choosing to leave school at 16 to become an apprentice machinist. Despite returning home after three years, Ford did not lose his passion for machinery and eventually went on to start his own business and change the industrial landscape forever. The story of Henry Ford is proof that creativity and innovation are traits that, ultimately, cannot be taught in a classroom. Instead, they must be developed through hands-on experience and a willingness to take risks.
Steve Irwin was a world-renowned wildlife expert and a television personality. He achieved global fame through entertaining yet educational TV shows like “The Crocodile Hunter,” which ran for over a decade.
As for his childhood, Irwin grew up in Melbourne and Queensland. He developed a passion for helping and investigating animals at a very young age. Irwin was only 6 years old when he caught his first venomous snake. After graduating from Caloundra State High School, Irwin skipped college and started working full-time at his family’s business – the Beerwah Reptile and Fauna Park. It was here that Irwin honed his skills as a wildlife expert and eventually began filming “The Crocodile Hunter” in 1996. The show was an instant hit, and Irwin quickly became one of the most famous faces on television.
Steve Harvey is an American actor, comedian, and television host best known for hosting “Family Feud” for over a decade. While Steve Harvey did attend Kent University and West Virginia University, he dropped out because he did not like the college experience. Harvey later admitted that dropping out threw his life into a downward loop, and he regrets not getting a degree.
After dropping out, Harvey juggled various dead-end jobs and homelessness for a few years, but eventually got his big break in stand-up comedy. His popularity as a stand-up comedian eventually led to a career in television, where he truly became a global superstar.
Although he has spoken about the regrets of not finishing college, Steve Harvey’s story is ultimately one of redemption and overcoming adversity. It shows that no matter how tough life gets, it is always possible to turn things around and find success.
Thomas Edison is arguably one of the most important and prolific inventors in history. He is credited with developing some of the most important technologies of the modern world, including the light bulb and phonograph.
Edison was born in Ohio in 1847 and spent most of his childhood in Michigan. Edison received only a few meager months of formal schooling during his upbringing. He was mostly taught by his mother who was a schoolteacher. Edison was also an avid self-learner as a child and regularly spent countless hours reading and doing various experiments.
Yet again, we have an individual who proves that formal education does not necessarily correlate with success and creativity – Thomas Edison managed to become one of the most influential people in human history without even finishing primary school.
Will Smith is an American actor, comedian, producer, and rapper. He is one of the most beloved entertainers in the world and has received numerous accolades for his work, most notably an Academy Award and four Grammy Awards.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Will started his career as a rapper in the late 1980s and initially found success as a part of DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince: a rap duo. The pair released several successful albums and won multiple Grammy Awards. In the early 1990s, Smith transitioned into acting and starred in the sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”, landing him his first major role.
Smith was academically successful in high school and even got admitted to a pre-engineering program at the celebrated Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Despite the opportunity, Smith consciously decided to pursue his music career instead of attending college. It is safe to say that Will Smith’s decision to focus on his entertainment career rather than getting a college degree paid off. He is now one of the most successful and recognizable actors in Hollywood.
Despite never attending college, Ruby Bridges is one of the most influential figures in the educational system in America. She was the first African-American child to integrate into an all-white elementary school in the South. This occurred in 1960 when Bridges was just six years old and paved the way for other children of color to get a quality education.
Despite threats against her, Ruby continued to attend the school and made history in the process.
Today, Ruby Bridges is still an active civil rights activist and speaks out about the importance of education for all children, regardless of race or socioeconomic background. While she never attended college, ruby Bridges is an excellent example of someone who made a significant impact without a college degree.
Marshall Mathers, commonly known by his artistic name Eminem, has sold over 127 million albums worldwide, making him one of the best-selling artists in the world. In addition, his work has received critical acclaim, having won a total of 15 Grammy Awards.
Eminem was born in Missouri in 1972 and spent his early years moving regularly between Missouri and Detroit. His childhood was full of tragedy due to an absent father, a difficult mother, bullying, and poverty. He dropped out of Lincoln High School at age 17 and spent several years working odd jobs.
Never pursuing college, Eminem started to rap locally in Detroit in the 1990s, and his big break came in 1997 when he was signed by the hip-hop mogul Dr. Dre, who helped him release his breakthrough album “The Slim Shady LP.”. This sparked his career, and he has gone on to release multiple successful albums, cementing his place as one of the most successful rappers of all time.
Cristiano Ronaldo is a Portuguese soccer player known as one of the best players. Ronaldo has won numerous awards throughout his career, including five Ballon d’Or Awards – an award given to the best player in the world. In addition, he has also been named FIFA’s Player of the Year five times.
Ronaldo was born on the Portuguese island of Madeira in 1985. Growing up, he faced a number of hardships, including poverty, his father’s alcoholism, and health issues with his heart. Despite all of these difficulties, Ronaldo was laser-focused on becoming a professional soccer player from a very early age.
Pursuing soccer also led Ronaldo to quit high school at the tender age of 14. It is fair to say that the decision to forego formal education paid off – Ronaldo has broken numerous records, including being the all-time top scorer of the UEFA Champions League, the most prestigious soccer tournament in the world. In addition, Ronaldo is the all-time top scorer for Real Madrid, the most successful club in European history.
Diana Frances Spencer, universally known as Princess Diana, was one of the most famous and beloved members of the British royal family. She was born into a noble family, but her parents divorced when she was young. This led to Diana’s upbringing being quite different from that of her future husband, Prince Charles.
Diana attended West Heath Girls’ School, but was academically unsuccessful and left school at age 16 and pursued various low-paying jobs such as a dance instructor and a nursery school teacher. In her early 20s, she became a member of the British royal family when she married Prince Charles (now King Charles III) in 1981.
Although Princess Diana had no formal education beyond high school, she was an incredibly well-loved public figure. She was known for her charitable work, and her style and grace were adored by people worldwide. She tragically died in a car accident in 1997, but her legacy continues to this day.