Can You Be Successful Without Earning a Degree?

Oct 05, 2011

Earning a degree is an important part of success in many career fields. But valuable skills and a good work ethic are also important, and can sometimes be overlooked in the emphasis placed on formal education. There are plenty of examples of extremely successful individuals without college degrees whose achievements are based on skill rather than education.

View Popular Schools

By Sarah Wright

Degree-Free and Monumentally Successful

We all know that earning an undergraduate or graduate degree is a great step to take on road to success, and is even necessary for certain career fields like medicine and education. But there are some famously wealthy and successful individuals who have managed to carve their own path without following the traditional steps.

Though there are similar examples from across the globe, these individuals found big success in the U.S. with a foundation of skills and knowledge developed without earning a degree and, in some cases, without even finishing high school. Of course, earning a degree is a great safety net, and it's a particularly good idea if you don't have a specific skill that you can market. But these individuals serve as proof that book smarts aren't the only kind of intelligence out there.

Ted Turner

Ted Turner is a highly successful media magnate. He made his way to success by founding CNN, the first 24-hour news network on television, and TBS, which was a pioneering concept in cable at the time of its introduction. The Turner empire, which is based in Atlanta, has since expanded, with accomplishments including a restaurant that serves bison raised on Turner's Montana farm, and the creation of the iconic '90s cartoon Captain Planet and the Planeteers. Turner made major news in 1998 by announcing a $1 billion contribution to the United Nations. He has managed to accomplish all this and more in spite of the fact that he was expelled from Brown University, and only has an honorary degree to his name.

Mary Kay Ash

The eponymous cosmetics company owned by Mary Kay Ash has enabled millions of women to gain an economic footing of their own. In founding Mary Kay Cosmetics, Ash became one of the U.S.'s most successful female entrepreneurs to date. In enabling women to sell familiar products from their own home, Ash made it possible for housewives to cover their duties around the house while also making some money on the side.

This kind of independence was basically unheard of before Mary Kay Cosmetics was introduced, and though Ash died in 2001, you can still see the iconic Mary Kay cars, awarded to top sellers, on the road. Ash's enterprising spirit comes from a sense of inequality she experienced in the workplace. Though she graduated from high school, she did not attend college.

Bill Gates (and Other Tech Tycoons)

Along with Steve Jobs, Harvard dropout Bill Gates is perhaps the most famous example of a computer whiz who didn't need to finish college to gain the skills necessary to succeed. This is perhaps the biggest category of successful and wealthy individuals without college degrees. Other examples include Paul Allen (Microsoft), Larry Ellison (Oracle), Michael Dell (Dell Computers), Kevin Rose (Digg.com), Dustin Moskovitz (Facebook), David Karp (Tumblr) and more. Gates is one individual who has managed to turn his financial and career success into something bigger and more impactful, with his organization, the Gates Foundation, making major contributions to education and health around the globe.

Dave Thomas

Before founding Wendy's, the successful fast food chain, Dave Thomas had a difficult early life that involved the death of an adoptive mother and subsequent shuttling between family members. He managed to work his way up the ladder at restaurants, starting with his first job when he was just 12 years old. He dropped out of high school as a teen, and his highest educational achievement came in 1993, when he earned his GED. Though Thomas found success through hard work instead of a degree program, he was a dedicated advocate for education and adoption until his death in 2002.

Wolfgang Puck

Celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck has spawned a restaurant and prepared-foods empire on the strength of his culinary skills. Born in Austria, Puck worked in kitchens around Europe before moving to the U.S. in his 20s. He never completed high school, and instead relied on apprenticeships and work experience to build his skills. Now, Puck is one of the most recognizable and successful chefs in the world, and was arguably one of the first celebrity chefs.

If you've already decided that you don't want to go to college, these success stories might be another good thing to include when you consider how to tell your parents you aren't going to college.

Next: View Schools

Popular Schools

The listings below may include sponsored content but are popular choices among our users.

Find your perfect school

What is your highest level of education?