Bill Gates Dropped Out of Harvard. Now, He’s Helping College Students Succeed.

The billionaire famously dropped out of Harvard to found Microsoft. Today, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is helping students make better choices about where to go to college.
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Anne Dennon
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Anne Dennon covers higher education trends, policy, and student issues for BestColleges. She has an MA in English literature and a background in research strategy and service journalism....
Updated on January 6, 2022
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Bill Gates effectively invented the college-dropout billionaire trope in 1975 when he left Harvard University to found Microsoft.

While Harvard eventually awarded an honorary doctorate to Gates, he never completed his bachelor's degree. Future tech billionaires such as Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Larry Page (Google), and Jack Dorsey (Twitter) would go on to follow in his footsteps, dropping out of college to see their world-changing ideas through to fruition.

But you won't find Gates advocating for students to follow in his footsteps. Instead, he's helping them make better choices about where to go to college through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the world's largest private charity.

Last November, the foundation's Postsecondary Value Commission released its Equitable Value Explorer website that students can use to evaluate more than 4,000 colleges and universities on factors such as racial composition of the student body, price of attendance, completion rates, the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants, and — critically — median earnings ten years after enrollment.

Bill Gates' Early Education and Formative Years

Born and raised in Seattle, Washington, Bill Gates attended public school as a child. Concerned about his behavior, and that his preference for being alone would make him vulnerable to bullying, Gates's parents enrolled him at the private Lakeside School at age 13. The elite college preparatory school for students in grades 5-12 only became co-educational in 1971, four years after Gates started attending.

As a new student at Lakeside, Gates wrote his first software program, which allowed users to play tic-tac-toe against the computer. At the school, he also met Paul Allen, the future co-founder of Microsoft.

After getting in trouble for gaming the school computer system to win more computer time, a Lakeside teacher enlisted Gates and another student, Kent Evans, to automate the school's class-scheduling system. Evans died in a mountain climbing accident that year, and Gates turned to Allen for help finishing the system.

Gates and Allen's next venture, Traf-O-Data, monitored traffic patterns in Seattle, and netted the teenagers $20,000. The young duo was already aiming to start a company, but Gates's parents wanted him to pursue a career in law like his father, William Henry Gates II.

While at Lakeside, Gates was a National Merit Scholar and served as a congressional page in the House of Representatives. He earned 1590 out of 1600 on the SAT, and was known to boast about his score when meeting new people.

Bill Gates' Legacy at Harvard University

Gates enrolled at Harvard in the fall of 1973 as a pre-law student, though he loaded up on mathematics and graduate-level computer science courses.

He quickly gained academic accolades at the acclaimed university when he developed an algorithm to address an unsolved problem posed by Professor Harry Lewis in his combinatorics course. Gates's solution, which held the record as the fastest for over 30 years, was published in collaboration with computer science theorist Christos Papadimitriou.

After two years, Gates took a leave of absence from Harvard to found a computer software company, Microsoft (originally "Micro-Soft" — a combination of "microcomputer" and "software"), with Allen.

In a 1994 interview, Gates said that the possibility of returning to college had been a safety net: "If things hadn't worked out, I could've always gone back to school. I was officially on leave." As it happened, Gates never returned to college. More than 30 years later, however, Harvard awarded him with an honorary doctorate.

When he accepted the honorary degree in 2007, Gates also delivered the university's commencement speech. In it, he called attending Harvard "a phenomenal experience … Academic life was fascinating. I used to sit in on lots of classes I hadn't even signed up for."

The Harvard degree wasn't Gates's first nor last academic honor. He has also received honorary doctorates from Nyenrode Business Universiteit, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Waseda University, Tsinghua University, the Karolinska Institute, and Cambridge University.

Gates is an elected member of the National Academy of Engineering, an honorary member of the American Library Association, a foreign member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society, a recipient of the New York Institute of Technology's President's Medal, and an honorary trustee of Peking University.

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Expands Gates' Influence

Gates and Allen established Microsoft in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1975, moving their nascent company to Bellevue, Washington, a suburb of their hometown, Seattle, four years later.

In 1995, at age 39, Gates became the richest person in the world. Following five years of scrutiny for antitrust practices, during which time a judge ruled that Microsoft had violated the Sherman Antitrust Act, Gates stepped down as CEO in 2000. Gates remained Microsoft's largest individual shareholder until May 2014.

In an interview with Rolling Stone that year, Gates predicted "some really bad things … in the next 50 or 100 years, but hopefully none of them on the scale of, say, a million people that you didn't expect to die from a pandemic, or nuclear, or bioterrorism."

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation led a polio vaccination campaign in the early 2000s. In 2010, the foundation pledged $10 billion over the following 10 years to develop and distribute vaccines to impoverished countries. At the time, Gates said, "We must make this the decade of vaccines."

In 2020, the Gates foundation launched the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator to hasten the development of SARS-CoV-2 treatments. News media focused heavily on Gates's thoughts and goals around the pandemic, and Gates reported being in frequent contact with National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci.

Bill Gates's sphere of influence extends far beyond the world of computers, in which he got his start. He heavily funds journalism, including NPR and researchers, including the social networking site ResearchGate. He is the largest private owner of farmland in the United States, with landholdings totalling 242,000 acres across 19 states.

Gates's investment portfolio includes nuclear power, global live satellite video, "sun-dimming" geoengineering, AI implantables, synthetic breast milk, and, through Impossible Foods, synthetic animal protein.