No Diploma, No Problem

One of President Obama’s goals for higher education is for America to have the “highest proportion of college graduates in the world” within the next decade. The Obama administration—along with most conventional wisdom—holds that college degrees are essential for both personal and national success. Yet hundreds of examples prove that both the president and the educational establishment are misguided.

Yes, for those who are academically inclined, college is the best path to a steady professional career. But millions of people around the world show that it is possible to create successful new products, head industries, and invent new ideas without ever having gone to college. Freedom and individualism are best fostered in a world where young people make their own decisions regarding education, without the straightjacket of societal pressure or “conventional wisdom.”

The most obvious successes of those who bypassed the books are entrepreneurs. Nearly everyone has heard that Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and one of the world’s wealthiest people, never graduated from college. Most people chalk up this surprising feat to exceptional talent, good timing, and a lot of luck. But it is probably more than that.

Successful entrepreneur Cameron Herold recently gave a talk at TED, an organization devoted to “Ideas Worth Spreading,” explaining that the structure and norms of schooling destroy entrepreneurship. Herold struggled in school and was always told to “study hard,” “be more focused,” “get a tutor”—even though, by the age of 10 he was creating value by buying and selling coat hangers, car license protectors, and comic books.

In addition to Gates, figures in the computer industry who never graduated from college include: Oracle founder and sixth-richest man in the world Larry Ellison, who left the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign at the end of his second year; Apple founder Steve Jobs, who created the first Mac in a garage; Michael Dell of Dell Computers; Shawn Fanning, who founded Napster at age 18; and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (a Harvard drop-out like Gates).

In 2006, CNN listed seven immensely successful entrepreneurs who never went to college: Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Music Group; Barry Diller, chairman of Expedia and the chairman and CEO of IAC/InterActiveCorp, which includes Citysearch, Evite, Home Shopping Network, Lending Tree, and Ticketmaster; Matt Drudge, pundit, blogger radio personality and proprietor of The Drudge Report; Janus Friis, co-founder of KaZaA and Skype; celebrity chef Rachael Ray; SiTV founder Jeff Valdez; and Vogue editor Anna Wintour.

While entrepreneurs are at the top of the list, there are others. John Taylor Gatto wrote in his 2009 book, Weapons of Mass Instruction, “Ted Turner, founder of CNN, dropped out of college in his freshman year; William Faulkner’s high school grades were too horrible to get him into the University of Mississippi…Warren Avis, the man who pioneered auto rentals at airports, decided college was a waste of time and never even applied.”

He also mentions authors Ernest Hemingway and Mark Twain, comedian Eddie Murphy, financial wizards Warren Buffett and Robert Kiyosaki (author of Rich Dad, Poor Dad), and entrepreneurs John Mackey of Whole Foods and Kip Tindell of the Container Store.

In 2009, a New York Times article revealed that 27 of the 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives never graduated from college. The article also noted, “As recently as four decades ago, at least 54 in the House and Senate were not college graduates.”

Today there is one U.S. senator without a college degree. Mark Begich (D-AK), who skipped college to run his family’s business, defeated incumbent Senator Ted Stevens in 2008.

There’s even a College Drop-Out Hall of Fame, which lists successful men and women across all fields who never got a college degree. The site’s owner explains why he created the list, “I’m a firm believer that most college students would be better off dropping out of school and investing the money they now spend on college. Then take the four years they would have spent on college and travel, work, play, and spend time with smart people talking about important things. It would be your choice on what’s important, not a professor, not a dean, not a faculty committee.”

Today’s focus on a college degree may say more about the credentialing craze than it does about the personalities of successful people. In many professions, laws now demand that practitioners earn a degree if they want to practice; architecture, law, medicine, accounting, nursing, and teaching are just a few. But those fields were once populated by people with little formal education.

Frank Lloyd Wright, who was recognized in 1991 by the American Institute of Architects as “the greatest American architect of all time,” most likely never graduated from high school and completed only two years of college. President Grover Cleveland (who served two non-consecutive terms in 1885–1889 and 1893–1897) dropped out of high school, never attended college, and was admitted to the New York bar after clerking in a law firm and studying on his own for the exam. Benjamin N. Cardozo, who served on the U.S. Supreme Court from 1932-1939, successfully passed the New York bar without completing law school. Florence Nightingale, the Crimean War equivalent of an R.N., educated herself in nursing.

For many, college has been a proven path to success. But for others, success has come from hard work, creative thinking, and an entrepreneurial spirit—things that you won’t learn in any college textbook.