9 Famous College Dropouts

Michael Short / Getty Images
Michael Short / Getty Images

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

The 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

Born 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 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

The 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

The 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

Today 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

Shortly 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 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."

Wayfair’s Fourth of July Clearance Sale Takes Up to 60 Percent Off Grills and Outdoor Furniture

Wayfair/Weber
Wayfair/Weber

This Fourth of July, Wayfair is making sure you can turn your backyard into an oasis while keeping your bank account intact with a clearance sale that features savings of up to 60 percent on essentials like chairs, hammocks, games, and grills. Take a look at some of the highlights below.

Outdoor Furniture

Brisbane bench from Wayfair
Brisbane/Wayfair

- Jericho 9-Foot Market Umbrella $92 (Save 15 percent)
- Woodstock Patio Chairs (Set of Two) $310 (Save 54 percent)
- Brisbane Wooden Storage Bench $243 (Save 62 percent)
- Kordell Nine-Piece Rattan Sectional Seating Group with Cushions $1800 (Save 27 percent)
- Nelsonville 12-Piece Multiple Chairs Seating Group $1860 (Save 56 percent)
- Collingswood Three-Piece Seating Group with Cushions $410 (Save 33 percent)

Grills and Accessories

Dyna-Glo electric smoker.
Dyna-Glo/Wayfair

- Spirit® II E-310 Gas Grill $479 (Save 17 percent)
- Portable Three-Burner Propane Gas Grill $104 (Save 20 percent)
- Digital Bluetooth Electric Smoker $224 (Save 25 percent)
- Cuisinart Grilling Tool Set $38 (Save 5 percent)

Outdoor games

American flag cornhole game.
GoSports

- American Flag Cornhole Board $57 (Save 19 percent)
- Giant Four in a Row Game $30 (Save 6 percent)
- Giant Jenga Game $119 (Save 30 percent)

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

17 Facts About Airplane! On Its 40th Anniversary

Julie Hagerty and Robert Hays (with Otto) in Airplane! (1980).
Julie Hagerty and Robert Hays (with Otto) in Airplane! (1980).
Paramount Home Entertainment

Shot on a budget of $3.5 million, David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker wrote and directed Airplane!, a movie intended to parody the onslaught of disaster movies that graced movie theater screens in the 1970s. The comedy classic, which arrived in theaters on July 2, 1980, ended up making more than $83.4 million in theaters in the United States alone, and resurrecting a few acting careers in the process. Here are some things you might not have known about the comedy classic on its 40th anniversary.

1. Airplane! was almost a direct parody of the 1957 movie Zero Hour!

Shorewood, Wisconsin childhood friends Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker grew up and moved to Los Angeles, where they were responsible for the sketch comedy troupe Kentucky Fried Theater. The trio made a habit of recording late-night television, looking for commercials to make fun of for their video and film parodies, which is how they discovered Zero Hour!, which also featured a protagonist named Ted Stryker (in Airplane! it's Ted Striker). In order to make sure the camera angles and lighting on Airplane! were matching those of Zero Hour!, the trio always had the movie queued up on set. Yes, the three filmmakers did buy the rights to their semi source material.

2. Universal thought Airplane! was too similar to their Airport franchise.

Universal released four plane disaster movies in the seventies: Airport in 1970; Airport 1975 (confusingly in 1974); Airport ‘77; and The Concorde ... Airport ‘79. Helen Reddy portrayed Sister Ruth in Airport 1975 and was game to play Sister Angelina in Airplane! before Universal stepped in and threatened to sue. Instead, the role went to Maureen McGovern, who sang the Oscar-winning theme songs to The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno—two movies that were also “disaster” movies, albeit ones not involving a plane.

3. David Letterman, Sigourney Weaver, and other future stars auditioned for Airplane!

In early conversations regarding Airplane!, Paramount Studios suggested Dom DeLuise for what would eventually become Leslie Nielsen’s role, and Barry Manilow for the role of Ted Striker, but they were never asked to audition.

4. Chevy Chase was mistakenly announced as the star of Airplane!.

Chevy Chase was erroneously announced as the star of Airplane! in a 1979 news item in The Hollywood Reporter.

5. The role of Roger Murdock was written with Pete Rose in mind.

Pete Rose was busy playing baseball when Airplane! was shot in August, so they cast Kareem Abdul-Jabbar instead.

6. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar got a pretty swanky carpet out of his Airplane! gig.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Peter Graves, and Rossie Harris in Airplane! (1980)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Rossie Harris, and Peter Graves in Airplane! (1980).
Paramount Home Entertainment

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s agent insisted on an extra $5000 to the original offer of a $30,000 salary so that the basketball legend could purchase an oriental rug he'd had his eye on.

7. Peter Graves thought the Airplane! script was "tasteless trash."

Peter Graves eventually found the humor in the film, including the pedophilia jokes, and agreed to play Captain Oveur. Graves's wife was glad he took the role; she laughed throughout the premiere screening.

8. No, the child actor playing young Joey didn't know what Peter Graves was actually saying.

Rossie Harris was only 9 years old when he played the role of Joey, so did not understand the humor in Turkish prisons, gladiator movies, or any of Oveur’s other comments. But by the time he turned 10 and saw the movie, Harris had apparently figured it out.

9. Airplane! marked Ethel Merman's final film appearance.

"The undisputed First Lady of the musical comedy stage” played a disturbed soldier who believed he was Ethel Merman. Merman passed away in 1984.

10. Michael Ehrmantraut from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul was in Airplane!.

Jonathan Banks plays air traffic controller Gunderson.

11. Airplane!'s three-director setup caused legal problems.

The Directors Guild of America ruled that Abrahams and the two Zuckers couldn’t all be credited for directing a movie, nor be credited under the single “fictitious name of Abrahams N. Zuckers.” A DGA rep was on set to make sure that only Jerry Zucker spoke to the actors. What he saw was Jerry Zucker next to the camera, who would then go to a nearby trailer where the other two were watching the takes on a video feed, and come back to give notes to the actors after conferring with his partners. A DGA executive board eventually gave the three one-time rights to all share the credit.

12. A BIT ABOUT BLIND POLISH AIRLINE PILOTS WAS WRITTEN AND FILMED.

Blind singer José Feliciano, and lookalikes of blind singers Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder, played Polish airline co-pilots. The Polish-American League protested, and it was determined by the writer-directors that the idea wasn’t funny enough to stay in the movie.

13. Robert Hays was starring in a TV show at the same time he was filming Airplane!

Robert Hays, the actor who played Ted Striker, had to race back and forth between the sets of Angie and Airplane! for two very busy weeks. The theme song to Angie was performed by the one and only Maureen McGovern.

14. Robert Hays was—and is—a licensed pilot.

He can even fly the ones with four engines.

15. Leslie Nielsen had a lot of fun with his fart machine.

Leslie Nielsen sold portable fart machines for $7 apiece on set, causing a brief epidemic of fart noises emanating from most of the cast and crew and delaying production. When they were shooting Hays’s close-up, Nielsen used the machine after every other word of his line, “Mr. Striker, can you land this plane?”

16. Stephen Stucker came up with all of Johnny's lines.

Lloyd Bridges and Stephen Stucker in Airplane! (1980)
Stephen Stucker and Lloyd Bridges in Airplane! (1980).
Paramount Home Entertainment

Stephen Stucker was a member of the Kentucky Fried Theater. His line “Me John, Big Tree” was part of an old riff he used to do, which continued with him going down on his knees and putting an ear to the ground to hear when a wagon train was arriving.

17. The original rough cut of Airplane! was 115 minutes long.

After screenings at three college campuses and two theaters, the film was cut down to 88 minutes.