50 Reasons Why You Don’t Need to Attend an Elite College

The 2012-2013 college admission season hasn’t even officially started, but I’ve already been hearing from parents who are stressed about paying for elite schools that are on their teenagers’ lists.

Some of these parents believe that they have an obligation to incur huge debt if their children get accepted into the most prestigious schools. Here’s my worst example:

Last spring a mom told me that she and her husband were going to borrow $200,000 to send their son to Cornell University because they considered getting into the Ivy League the ultimate prize. The teenager, however, could have attended an honors program at Stony Brook University without incurring any debt. I swear I’m not making this up!

It’s sheer nonsense to think that you must attend the schools huddled at the top of the college rankings to succeed in life. To help refute this stubborn myth, I thought I’d share a few names of some successful Americans who have done quite well without obtaining a bachelor’s degree from the likes of a Yale or a Harvard.

Where 50 Successful Americans Attended College

I could have spent days typing in the names of Americans who fit into this category, but  I think my random list is a respectable start.  I collected some of these names myself and got others from folks who visit my Facebook page , including someone who sent me a link to a USA Today list of the alma maters of a smattering of CEOs.

I’d love to hear your picks that I can add to this list. Please share them in the comment box below.

  1. Arnold Schwarzenegger, actor/politician, University of Wisconsin-Superior
  2. Gore Vidal, author, didn’t attend college
  3. Milton Friedman, economist, Rutgers University
  4. Arthur Blank, co-founder Home Depot, Babson College
  5. Bruce Willis, actor, Montclair State University
  6. Michael Pollan, author/environmentalist, Bennington College
  7. Paula Abdul, singer, California State University, Northridge
  8. Karl Rove, political strategist, University of Utah (didn’t graduate)
  9. David Plouffe, President Obama’s senior advisor, University of Delaware
  10. Brian Williams, broadcaster, Catholic and George Washington universities, (didn’t graduate)
  11. Bernie Marcus, Home Depot founder, Rutgers University
  12. Neil Armstrong, astronaut, Purdue University
  13. Clarence Thomas, Supreme Court justice, College of the Holy Cross
  14. Millard S. Drexler, J. Crew CEO, University of Buffalo
  15. Johnny Depp, actor, high school dropout
  16. Stephen King, novelist, University of Maine
  17. Jim Davis, creator of Garfield, Ball State University
  18. Fernando Aguirre, Chiquita Brands, Southern Illinois University
  19. Kate Spade, fashion designer, Arizona State University
  20. Peggy Noonan, political commentator, Fairleigh Dickinson University
  21. Barbara Boxer, US Senator, Brooklyn College
  22. Phillip Anschutz, sports team owner, University of Kansas
  23. David Marmet, director/Pulitzer Prize winner, Goddard College
  24. Muriel Fox, co-founder of National Organization of Women, Rollins College
  25. Jerry Seinfeld, comedian, Queens College
  26. Steve Capus, NBC news president, Temple University
  27. Steven Spielberg, director, California State University, Long Beach
  28. David Edmondson, RadioShack CEO, Pacific Coast Baptist College
  29. Mary Higgins Clark, author, Fordham University
  30. Richard Ben-Veniste, Watergate prosecutor, Muhlenberg College
  31. Oprah Winfrey, television personality, Tennessee State University
  32. Sam Walton, Walmart founder, University of Missouri
  33. Marcia McNutt, director of U.S. Geological Survey, Colorado College
  34. John Glenn astronaut, Muskingum University
  35. Michael Mulligan, Mapquest CEO, Wheeling Jesuit University
  36. Jerry Greenfield, co-founder Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, Oberlin College
  37. Jerry Richardson, owner of Carolina Panthers, Wofford College
  38. John Malkovich, actor, Eastern Illinois University
  39. Rich Gotham, Boston Celtics president, Providence College
  40. Robert Iger, Disney CEO, Ithaca College
  41. John Hamm, actor, University of Missouri
  42. Steve Carrell, actor, Denison University
  43. Nancy Grace, legal commentator, Mercer University
  44. Tim Russert, broadcaster, John Carroll University
  45. Shelia Blair, former FDIC chair, University of Kansas
  46. Howard Stern, radio personality, Boston University
  47. Janet Robinson, New York Times CEO, Salve Regina College
  48. Johnny Carson, comedian Millsaps College,
  49. Bob Edwards, broadcaster, University of Louisville
  50. Sandra Bullock, actress, East Carolina University

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of second edition of The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price.

Join My Newsletter
Get your free guide to finding the most generous colleges
Practical, actionable information for Students, Parents, Counselors & Financial Advisors.

Let's Connect

Leave a Reply

  1. I prepare tax returns so I know what everyone makes. My most under-employed people are the Ivy League grads. Graduates from the elite universities seem to be laid off a lot. However, my most steady earners come from the state colleges and universities. I notice many of my top earners start in community college and transfer to a four year college. My highest earner last year is a graduate of a local college that most people never heard of.
    The ones with the biggest student loan debts do not succeed as well in the job market.

  2. Lolo,

    You can find the financial information you’re seeking at College Board or by looking up each individual school’s common data set. Lynn has posts below that will give you a start.


    More importantly, I’d back up a bit and try to figure out what type of school will be the best fit for your student. The three schools you referred to, Cal Berkeley, Princeton and Reed all have good reputations, but are vastly different in size, style and the type of student they attract.

    Good luck!


      1. What I really want to know is the value of what is considered to be an elite college. Let’s say the parents do have the money, but want the ‘most bang for the buck’ for an education, which would be the prudent thing to do. Let’s take your math son, for example, and say he could have gotten into any college/university he wanted, but he wouldn’t get any financial aid or grant money. However, you know he will also go on to graduate school for a PhD, which would be a free education after his undergraduate work. Which would you choose any why? Would you choose a Princeton (about $220k) or a Berkeley where you could save about $22k/year for in-state tuition and maybe a year of school for AP courses that would count toward college (about $100k)?

        1. Lolo,

          I don’t think that is a fair comparison, because Berkeley isn’t your average state school. The choice there is fairly easy, Berkeley. The real question is Princeton at $220K vs. say Oregon State or Mizzou or Cal State Fullerton.


          1. Lolo — Reed College doesn’t give merit scholarships. But to the question posed — would you spend $220,000 on a Princeton bachelor’s degree if your child hopes to go on to grad school or far, far less at a state school like U. of Missouri or Oregon State, that’s a no brainer. I’d pick the state school. (I am a grad of Mizzou, but that has nothing to do with my position.) Let me state what I hope is obvious, most graduate students do not attend Ivies as undergrads.

            Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  3. Lynn,

    The problem as I see it is that a $200,000 bill is no longer exclusive to the “elite” schools. There are now over 100 institutions who’s average yearly cost is over $50K. I haven’t verified it, but I’d bet several of them are on the list above (Oberlin, Colorado College, Providence, Wofford, maybe more).

    1. Hi Mike,

      You are right that more schools cost $200,000 today, but most schools discount their price to the majority of its students. Schools like Cornell and other Ivy League schools, however, don’t provide merit scholarships only need-based aid.
      The most elite schools don’t have to provide price breaks to wealthy students because they attract plenty of affluent families who are able to pay full price or who will go into tremendous hock to do so.

      At Wofford, for instance, 87% of freshman get a price break, according to the federal College Navigator. In contrast, just 51% of students at Cornell do. The remaining 49% of Cornell students are wealthy.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

    2. Mike,

      I forgot to mention that I appreciate your review of my book, The College Solution, on Amazon. I just saw it. I would love for anybody else who liked my book to write a review!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  4. Hi Lynn,

    Great list! But I believe despite Arthur Blank’s many accomplishments (founding the Home Depot, chairing his own philanthropical foundation, and owning the Atlanta Falcons football team), he was never the chairman of Coca-Cola. 🙂