AS THE NEW SEMESTER BEGINS, my thoughts turn to today, January 15, the deadline for eligible college football players to declare for the National Football League draft. (Happily, for me, Tar Heel football fan, all of the University of North Carolina football team's underclassmen who were draft-eligible have declared they are staying for another year. Whether the decisions are smart ones for them, only a year will tell.)
Anyway, this annual day of decision inspired me to write a column on some of the players who have gone pro early that you may not have heard about.
Edwin H. Land (founder of Polaroid Corporation and developer of the Polaroid Land instant camera) left Harvard University after his freshman year. Land was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award given to a U.S. citizen, for his work in optics.
Michael Dell (founder of Dell, Inc.) dropped out of college at 19. But don't say that college didn't help him. He started his computer company in his college dorm room during his brief stay at the University of Texas at Austin. As of 2009, Forbes estimates Dell's net worth at $12.3 billion.
Steven Spielberg (co-founder of DreamWorks and director of, among other movies, the Star Wars series) was denied acceptance to film school and dropped out of California State University, Long Beach. Four of Spielberg's films each became the highest-grossing film made at the time of their release.
Bill Gates (co-founder of Microsoft and the richest man in the world), like Land dropped out of Harvard but after his second year. As he later noted, “I realized the error of my ways and decided I could make do with a high school diploma.” In 2009, Gates was ranked as the world's wealthiest person and is perhaps the world's greatest philanthropist.
But please do understand that not every successful entrepreneur has been a college dropout. Some never made it to college.
Henry Ford (the founder of Ford Motor Company and the father of mass production) never graduated from high school. Ford created one of the most powerful companies in the world, and in doing do amassed one of the world's largest fortunes.
John D. Rockefeller Sr. (the founder of Standard Oil, the first multinational corporation) was a high school dropout who became the first American billionaire and, perhaps, the richest man in history.
Thomas Alva Edison (the founder of General Electric, currently one of the largest publicly traded companies in the world, and holder of 1,097 American patents) never got far enough to even drop out of high school, dropping out at age 12 to join the railroad, quitting quit formal schooling after his teacher called him addled.
But just in case you think, based on the preceding list, that dropping out of school guarantees success in life, consider also that Ben Affleck, Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Aniston, Christina Applegate, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Dan Aykroyd (to sample only those celebrities whose last names begin with the letter "A") also never finished college. So, dropping out of college doesn't guarantee any worthwhile contribution to humanity -- other than a fat wallet -- but it does seem to assure the dropout fame, whether justified or not.
For my educated readers who are not so sure that I should be promoting dropping out of school, which I am not, in a town which has as its major industry the University of North Carolina, I have non-rhetorical question: Do you know how to get a Carolina graduate off your porch? Answer: Pay for the pizza.
Gary D. Gaddy, who graduated from college with a lucrative degree in German, was, at one time, a college dropout, taking an 18-month sabbatical in the middle of his first senior year at Furman University.
A version of this column was published in the Chapel Hill Herald on Friday January 15, 2010.
Copyright 2010 Gary D. Gaddy