20 Notable People Who Dropped Out of School

Princess Diana
Diana, Princess of Wales, wears a charm bracelet aboard the new P&O cruise liner "Royal Princess," named in her honor. She dropped out of school at 16 but still became an international celebrity. Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images

Everyone knows how important it is to stay in school, get a good education and graduate with a diploma. But it may be hard to stay focused after reading about the success of these famous dropouts. Hard work, drive, natural talent and sheer luck helped them overcome their lack of education, but some still returned to school later in life.

In this article, you will learn about notable people including inventors, politicians and entertainers who dropped out of school before their rise to fame.

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1. Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison is probably the most famous and productive inventor of all time, with more than 1,000 patents in his name, including the electric light bulb, phonograph and motion picture camera. He became a self-made multimillionaire and won a Congressional Gold Medal. Edison got a late start in his schooling following an illness and, as a result, his mind often wandered, prompting one of his teachers to call him "addled." He dropped out after only three months of formal education. Luckily, his mother had been a schoolteacher in Canada and home-schooled young Edison.

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2. Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin wore many hats: politician, diplomat, author, printer, publisher, scientist, inventor, Founding Father, and coauthor and cosigner of the Declaration of Independence. One thing he was not was a high school graduate. Franklin was the 15th child and youngest son in a family with 17 children. He spent two years at the Boston Latin School before dropping out at age 10 and going to work for his father, and then his brother, as a printer.

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3. Rihanna

Singer Robyn Rihanna Fenty is the best-selling digital artist in the world, as well as being an entrepreneur, fashion designer and actor — accomplishments all achieved sans a high school diploma. Rihanna was born in 1988 in Barbados. In 2003, she was discovered by two New York City music producers vacationing in the Caribbean. The 15-year-old promptly quit high school and moved to the Big Apple, where record label Def Jam released her debut album. Today, Rihanna has sold more than 54 million albums and 210 million tracks and is the youngest solo artist to have 14 No. 1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100. She's also designed collections for Armani and has hugely successful fashion and beauty lines.

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4. Albert Einstein

Although he was named Time magazine's "Man of the Century," Albert Einstein was not an "Einstein" in school. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist, famous for his theory of relativity and contributions to quantum theory and statistical mechanics, dropped out of high school at age 15. Deciding to continue his education a year later, Einstein took the entrance exam to the prestigious Swiss Federal Institute of Technology but failed. (He did pass the math portion though, despite a persistent myth.) He returned to high school, got his diploma and then passed the university's entrance exam on his second attempt.

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5. John D. Rockefeller

Two months before his high school graduation, history's first recorded billionaire, John D. Rockefeller, Sr., dropped out to take business courses at Folsom Mercantile College. He founded the Standard Oil Company in 1870, made his billions before the company was broken up by the government for being a monopoly, and spent his last 40 years giving away his riches, primarily to causes related to health and education. Ironically, this high school dropout helped millions get a good education.

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6. Walt Disney

In 1918, while still in high school, future Oscar-winning film producer and theme park pioneer Walt Disney began taking night courses at the Academy of Fine Arts in Chicago. Disney dropped out of high school at age 16 to join the Army, but because he was too young to enlist, he joined the Red Cross with a forged birth certificate instead. Disney was sent to France, where he drove an ambulance that was covered from top to bottom with cartoons that eventually became his film characters. After becoming the multimillionaire founder of the Walt Disney Company and winning the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Disney received an honorary high school diploma at age 58.

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7. Princess Diana

Diana, Princess of Wales, attended West Heath Girls' School, where she was regarded as an academically below-average student, having failed all of her O-level examinations twice (exams given to 16-year-old students in the U.K. to determine their proficiency in school subjects). At age 16, she left West Heath and briefly attended a finishing school in Switzerland before dropping out from there as well. Diana was a talented amateur singer and longed to be a ballerina, though she was considered to be too tall for that. She went to work as a part-time assistant at the Young England Kindergarten, a daycare center and nursery school. Contrary to claims, she was not a kindergarten teacher, since she had no educational qualifications to teach. There she excelled as she was very good with young children. In 1981, at age 19, Diana became engaged to Prince Charles and her working days were over. She and Charles famously divorced in 1996; Diana died in a car crash in 1997.

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8. George Burns

George Burns, born Nathan Birnbaum, was a successful vaudeville, TV and movie comedian for nearly nine decades. After his father's death, Burns left school in the fourth grade to go to work shining shoes, running errands and selling newspapers. While employed at a local candy shop, Burns and his young coworkers decided to go into show business as the Peewee Quartet. After the group broke up, Burns continued to work with a partner, usually a girl, and was the funny one in the group until he met Gracie Allen in 1923. Burns and Allen got married but didn't become stars until Burns flipped the act and made Allen the funny one. They continued to work together in vaudeville, radio, television and movies until Allen retired in 1958. Burns continued performing almost until the day he died in March 1996 at age 100.

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9. Colonel Sanders

Colonel Harland Sanders overcame his lack of education to become the biggest drumstick in the fried chicken business. His father died when he was 6 years old, and since his mother worked, he was forced to cook for the family. After dropping out of the seventh grade, Sanders worked many jobs, including firefighter, steamboat driver and insurance salesman. He later earned a law degree from a correspondence school. Sanders' cooking and business experience helped him make millions as the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken (now KFC).

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10. Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens was the author of numerous classics, including "Oliver Twist," "A Tale of Two Cities" and "A Christmas Carol." He attended elementary school until his life took a twist of its own when his father was imprisoned for debt. At age 12, he left school and began working 10-hour days in a boot-blacking factory. Dickens later worked as a law clerk and a court stenographer. At age 22, he became a journalist, reporting parliamentary debate and covering election campaigns for a newspaper. His first collection of stories, "Sketches by Boz" (Boz was his nickname), was published in 1836 and led to his first novel, "The Pickwick Papers," in March 1836.

11. Elton John

Elton John
Elton John performs at MetLife Stadium July 23, 2022 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. He dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music to start a career in rock and roll. Theo Wargo/Getty Images

Born Reginald Kenneth Dwight, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame member Sir Elton John has sold more than 300 million records and has more than 50 Top 40 hits, making him one of the most successful musicians of all time. At age 11, Elton entered London's Royal Academy of Music on a piano scholarship. Bored with classical compositions, Elton preferred rock and roll, and at 17, he quit school to become a weekend pianist at a local pub. He later formed a band called Bluesology and took his stage name from the names of two band members. By the mid-1960s, they were touring with soul and R&B musicians such as the Isley Brothers and Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles. The album "Elton John" was released in the spring of 1970 and, after the first single "Your Song" made the U.S. Top Ten, Elton was on his way to superstardom.

12. Ray Kroc

Ray Kroc didn't found McDonald's, but he turned it into the world's largest fast-food chain after purchasing the original location from Dick and Mac McDonald. Kroc amassed a $500 million fortune during his lifetime, and in 2000 was included in Time magazine's list of the 100 most influential builders and titans of industry in the 20th century. During World War I, Kroc dropped out of high school at age 15 and lied about his age to become a Red Cross ambulance driver, but the war ended before he was sent overseas.

13. Harry Houdini

The name Houdini is synonymous with magic. Before becoming a world-renowned magician and escape artist named Harry Houdini, Erik Weisz dropped out of school at age 12, working several jobs, including locksmith's apprentice. At 17, he teamed up with fellow magic enthusiast Jack Hayman to form the Houdini Brothers, named after Jean Eugène Robert Houdin, the most famous magician of the era. By age 24, Houdini had come up with the Challenge Act, offering to escape from any pair of handcuffs produced by the audience. The Challenge Act was the turning point for Houdini. With its success came the development of the spectacular escapes that would make him a legend.

14: Whoopi Goldberg

Dropping out of high school and becoming addicted to drugs isn't the best way to start out in life. But Caryn Johnson not only turned her life around, but she became quite successful as the actor and comedienne Whoopi Goldberg. Goldberg starred in such smash flicks as "The Color Purple," "Ghost" and "Sister Act," and was the first Black woman to host the Academy Awards. She was also the second Black woman to win one. Goldberg's comic chops were acknowledged in 2001, when she received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor from the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. She is also one of the few entertainers to have an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony award-winner).

15. Ringo Starr

Richard Starkey is better known as Ringo Starr, the drummer of the Beatles. Born in Liverpool in 1940, Ringo suffered two serious illnesses at age 6. First, his appendix ruptured, leaving him in a coma for 10 weeks. After six months in recovery, he fell out of the hospital bed, necessitating an additional six-month hospital stay. After missing so much time in school he was barely literate at age 8. Tutoring almost caught him up, but then he contracted tuberculosis and had to spend two years in a sanatorium. One good thing that came out of this time was that he learned to play the drums in the hospital band. After leaving the sanatorium, he dropped out of school at age 15. While working a variety of jobs, 17-year-old Starkey joined a band and his stepfather bought him his first real drum set. Starkey sat in with several bands, eventually joining Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. He changed his name to Ringo Starr, joined the Beatles in 1962, and is now one of the best-known drummers in history.

16. Richard Branson

Britain's Sir Richard Branson is a self-made billionaire businessman. He founded Virgin Atlantic Airways, Virgin Records, Virgin Mobile and, most recently, a space tourism company to provide suborbital trips into space for anyone who can afford them. Suffering from dyslexia, Branson was a poor student, so he quit school at age 16 and moved to London, where he began his first successful entrepreneurial activity, publishing Student magazine.

17. Jennifer Lawrence

It's a good thing Jennifer Lawrence's parents allowed her to drop out of school while in eighth grade, since she subsequently became one of the highest-paid actors of all time. Lawrence was born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1990. After ditching school, she went to Manhattan at age 14 to do some cold reads. Agents were immediately impressed, and she soon appeared in commercials, then movies. She's best known today for her starring roles as Ree in "Winter's Bone" (2010) and as Katniss Everdeen in "The Hunger Games" (2012) and its three sequels. The latter movies made her the highest-paid female actor in 2015 and 2016.

18. Sachin Tendulkar

Despite having a father who was a famous novelist and a mother who was an insurance specialist, Sachin Tendulkar failed his HSC exam (Indian equivalent of a 12th grade certificate) and left school at age 16. But Tendulkar didn't worry, since he was already playing cricket for India's national team. Born in Mumbai in 1973, Tendulkar went on to become one of the world's top cricket players. He is regarded as one of the best batsmen and is the only player to have scored more than 34,000 runs. His wife, Anjali Mehta, is a pediatrician.

19: Mary Pickford

A lot of women born in the late 1800s never finished high school. But Mary Pickford began acting at age 7 to help support her family after her father's death. The Canadian, born Gladys Smith in 1892, eventually became known for her beauty and talent as a silent film star in the U.S. and beyond, and was dubbed "America's Sweetheart." Pickford was married three times, including a union with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., with whom she founded United Artists. (D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin were also founders.) She and Fairbanks were the first stars to place hand and footprints in the cement at Grauman's Chinese Theatre.

20: Julie Andrews

Julie Andrews says that one of the biggest regrets in her life is that her education stopped at age 15. While that may be true, she's had an amazing career in the entertainment industry. Born in England in 1935 as Julia Wells, she later took her stepfather's surname of Andrews. Her mother and stepdad were vaudeville performers, and when her stepdad gave her singing lessons one day, he discovered she had a rare, four-octave range. By 1954 she was performing on Broadway, followed by an extensive film career that included blockbuster musicals such as "The Sound of Music" and "Mary Poppins," plus the two popular "Princess Diaries" flicks. She's also worked in television and had voice roles in several films.

CONTRIBUTING WRITERS:

Helen Davies, Marjorie Dorfman, Mary Fons, Deborah Hawkins, Martin Hintz, Linnea Lundgren, David Priess, Julia Clark Robinson, Paul Seaburn, Heidi Stevens, and Steve Theunissen

Originally Published: Sep 11, 2007

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