July 5, 2007 Special to ABCNEWS.com — -- Onscreen, Legally Blonde's Reese Witherspoon is a Harvard-educated lawyer. Offscreen? She's a college dropout.
In most professions, that might be a problem. But life is different in Tinseltown. Of the 20 best-paid actors and actresses on our Most Powerful Celebrities list, who collectively raked in $529 million over the course of the year, only two -- Adam Sandler and Cate Blanchett -- have a college degree. Witherspoon? She earned $7 million last year.
But for non-actors on our list, it's a different story. For these authors, directors and talking heads, a college education proves far more common. For these folks, communications, broadcasting and psychology have been among the more popular majors. Among the high-profile grads: Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg and Donald Trump hold degrees in speech, film and economics, respectively.
Check out what your favorite star majored in.
There's a simple reason for this, argues James Houran, a clinical psychologist who researches celebrity worship. A college education is an increasingly unnecessary item on celebrity résumés, and may actually be a liability. Rather than rely on skills and ability, as stars once did to get noticed, he says there exists a trivialized process by which celebrities are made today. The way Houran sees it, reaching stardom now has less to do with who has the best skills or ability than who has the best marketer or promoter. And taking time for college risks disrupting that process.
So while the absence of a degree is hardly a new phenomenon in Hollywood -- bold-faced names like George Clooney, Angelina Jolie and Tom Cruise never donned a tassel -- it is even less of a priority for today's rising stars. Among the newest cadre of degree-impaired celebrities: Jessica Simpson, Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan.
"They're earning fantastic sums by the time they're teenagers, so the obvious question, no matter how smart they are, is why take time off to go to school?" says Tyler Cowen, author of What Price Fame?. "You can always go later--not that most of them do."
That lack of experience can be damaging as stars age, however, says David Haven Blake, author of the recently published Walt Whitman and the Culture of American Celebrity. His fear: These are people who have doggedly pursued a single goal without ever developing the kind of critical perspective that will help them face challenges later in life. "They are like mountain climbers so eager to reach the summit," he says, "that they never stop to fill their canteens on the way."
And what about society's youth that strives desperately to emulate Hollywood's stars? Will the non-educated A-list serve as poor role models?
The answer, according to Cowen, is no, because whether or not celebrities have attended college is rarely known, much less discussed. Simply put: Reality isn't important. For fans, an actor playing an English major on television has more impact than an actor being an English major in real life. And when people want motivation from a celebrity, they focus on the qualities that they'd like to emulate and pitch the rest. "People tend to use role models for their own purposes," he says.
For the stars, the lack of a traditional college experience may not be such a bad thing, says Cowen. Always treated like royalty, celebrities wouldn't get to learn from and enjoy the typical college experience anyhow. Consider Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, stalked by the paparazzi during their undergrad days at New York University. Normalcy? Hardly. The twin starlets eventually dropped out. So if the goal is simply to learn, Cowen says private tutors would likely prove more effective.
"A lot of school is about developing alliances, contacts and a self image," he says, "and if you're a movie star, you don't really need those things."