With over 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S., high school grads who want to continue their education have a big choice to make. In addition to considering location, size, cost and which schools rank best for their preferred major, they might also be interested in knowing which famous faces once graced the campuses on their shortlist.
From former Presidents to big Hollywood names, here are the most famous alumni from some of the top schools in the country.
Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
As one of the most prestigious U.S. schools, Harvard University boasts a long list of notable alumni, including eight former U.S. presidents.
In 1988, a young man from Honolulu, Hawaii, named Barack Hussein Obama enrolled in Harvard Law School and quickly made history by being the first black person to head the Harvard Law Review. Obama went on to become the 44th (and first African-American) president of the United States, serving from 2009 to 2017.
Other well-known Harvard alumni include John F. Kennedy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, writer Susan Sontag, comedian Amy Poehler, Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.
Yale University, New Haven, CT
Another Ivy League school to produce future world leaders is Yale. Former U.S. presidents William Howard Taft, Bill Clinton, Gerald Ford and both George H.W. and George W. Bush are among its alumni. But Yale also has another type of A-list legacy. Hollywood heavyweights Jodie Foster, Edward Norton and Claire Danes claim Yale as their alma mater.
Often described as the best actress of her generation, Meryl Streep — winner of three Academy Awards — studied drama at Yale and earned a master of fine arts degree in 1975.
Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
Cornell University’s biggest claim to fame is that it is the only institution that counts three female Nobel Prize winners among its alumni. Pearl S. Buck and Toni Morrison were awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature (in 1938 and 1993, respectively) and Barbara McClintock won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983.
Other famous Cornell alumni include former President of Cuba Mario Garcia Menocal, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States Ruth Bader Ginsberg and “Superman” actor Christopher Reeve.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA
Harvard isn’t the only college in Cambridge with big names on its alumni list. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has schooled no less than 27 Nobel Prize winners and almost 50 Rhodes Scholars. In 1963, a young man named Edwin Eugene Aldrin earned an Sc.D. degree in astronautics from Cornell. Six years later, his name (Buzz Aldrin) was known across the world when he became one of the first two men to set foot on the moon.
Other notable MIT grads are New York Times columnist Paul Krugman and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Stanford University, Stanford, CA
Due to its proximity to California’s Silicon Valley, it seems natural that Stanford University would produce tech masterminds and entrepreneurs by the dozen. Some of the tech industry’s most prominent names, including Larry Page and Sergey Brin (Google), Mike Krieger and Kevin Systrom (Instagram), William Hewlett and David Packard (Hewlett Packard) and Reed Hastings (Netflix), attended the school.
Interestingly, one of Stanford’s most famous students didn’t actually complete her degree. Oscar-winning actor Reese Witherspoon attended the school for only one year in 1994 before dropping out to pursue her Hollywood career.
Columbia University, New York City, NY
In the early days of Columbia (which was founded in 1754), the university graduated five of the U.S. founding fathers, including Alexander Hamilton and John Jay. Former presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Barack Obama, who got a degree in political science in 1983 before heading to Harvard Law School, are also on its alumni list.
In addition, Columbia is known for its high-ranking arts and literature programs, so it’s no surprise that it has also produced the likes of sibling actors Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal and writers Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and J.D. Salinger.
New York University, New York City, NY
New York University attracts students from all over the world, with the illustrious Tisch School of the Arts counting directors Joel Cohen, Oliver Stone and Martin Scorsese, as well as actors Anne Hathaway, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Whoopi Goldberg, among its alumni.
And before she was the global superstar Lady Gaga, a young woman named Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta attended Tisch. She dropped out after a year, however, to focus on her music career — and the rest is history.
The University of California, Berkeley, CA
The University of California’s flagship school, UC Berkeley, boasts many tech leaders on its alumni list, including Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore and former Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt. But the school also produces high achievers in entertainment, politics and literature, such as Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Robert Penn Warren and actor Chris Pine.
Georgetown University, Washington, DC
One of the oldest Catholic and Jesuit colleges in the U.S., Georgetown is as well known for its political profile as it is for its religious history. Its alumni list includes more than a dozen heads of state, including Felipe VI of Spain, Laura Chinchilla, the first female President of Costa Rica, and King Abdullah II of Jordan. Other famous faces who passed through Georgetown include Ivanka Trump and author and former First Lady of California, Maria Shriver.
In a 2018 interview, actor Bradley Cooper likened his directorial debut on the award-winning “A Star is Born” to his efforts to get accepted to Georgetown.
“I just really kept my head down and stayed focused the same way I did when I wanted to come to this university,” Cooper said.
Princeton University, Princeton, NJ
Since it was founded in 1746, Princeton has nurtured the talents of generations of notable alumni. Like other Ivy League schools, it was the choice of numerous presidents, including James Madison and Woodrow Wilson, as well as former First Lady Michelle Obama.
In her 2018 autobiography “Becoming,” Obama spoke about her Princeton experience, shedding light on what it was like to be a working-class black female student at the “extremely white and very male” elite school.
“If in high school I’d felt as if I were representing my neighborhood, now at Princeton I was representing my race,” she wrote. “Anytime I found my voice in class or nailed an exam, I quietly hoped it helped make a larger point.”
University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
Founded by Benjamin Franklin, the University of Pennsylvania (known as Penn) is another prestigious Ivy League school. Its Wharton School of Business counts some of the world’s most prolific businesspeople among its alumni, including Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk and Warren Buffet, currently the world’s third-richest person, per Forbes. In the arts world, actor Elizabeth Banks, singer/songwriter John Legend (then John Stephens), Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jennifer Egan and poets Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams are former Penn students.
President Donald Trump started at Fordham University but transferred to Wharton after two years. He graduated in 1968 with a bachelor’s degree in real estate.
“I decided that as long as I had to be in college, I might as well test myself against the best,” he wrote in his book “Trump: The Art of the Deal.”
University of California-Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA
UCLA’s connections to the entertainment industry are no surprise given its proximity to Hollywood. Many actors graduated from the school, including Ben Stiller, James Franco, Mariska Hargitay, Steve Martin, Jack Black and Ariel Winter. Director Francis Ford Coppola (“The Godfather” trilogy and “Apocalypse Now”) also attended UCLA.
As far as Hollywood legends go, UCLA is hard to beat. Before James Dean was a cultural icon, he was a pre-law major at Santa Monica College. But he wasn’t destined for the legal world; he transferred to UCLA and changed his major to drama. It’s while he was studying at UCLA that he landed his first role — as Malcolm in “Macbeth.”
Hollywood’s most famous actress, Marilyn Monroe, briefly took evening courses in art appreciation and literature at UCLA, but had to withdraw — she was reportedly too much of a distraction for her fellow students.
University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA
Many of USC’s most famous grads are from the entertainment industry, such as comedian Will Ferrell, actors Daryl Hannah, Kyra Sedgwick and Forest Whitaker, producer/director Judd Apatow and “Star Wars” creator George Lucas. There are also plenty of notable musicians on its alumni list, including Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, singer/songwriter Macy Gray and the co-founder of A&M Records, Herb Alpert.
In 1970 — a year after he made world history by landing on the moon — astronaut Neil Armstrong graduated from USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering with a master’s degree in aerospace engineering. In 2005, Armstrong addressed graduates at USC’s commencement, stressing the importance of strong values and principles.
Brown University, Providence, RI
As one of the oldest and most esteemed schools in the country, Brown University (founded in 1764) was a home away from home for numerous prominent families like the Rockefellers and the Kennedys. The college is the alma mater for a diverse range of famous faces, from Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen to “Grey’s Anatomy” actor Jessica Capshaw. Other Brown grads who ended up in Hollywood include John Krasinski (“The Office”), Julie Bowen (“Modern Family”) and Laura Linney (“Kinsey”).
“I really like the fact that it has a very open curriculum, that there aren’t any requirements,” she said. “Really, I’ve kind of been in charge of my own education since I started out on Potter when I was 9 or 10, and I liked that I could design my own major if I wanted to, and I could take independent studies if I wanted to on subjects that weren’t necessarily in the curriculum.”
Dartmouth College, Newhaven, NH
Dartmouth may be the smallest of the Ivy League colleges, but its alumni list doesn’t disappoint. It has helped develop some of the world’s biggest business brains, including former eBay CEO John Donahoe and former General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt. But it hasn’t only nurtured notable business talent. “Grey’s Anatomy” creator Shonda Rhimes and actors Mindy Kaling, Aisha Tyler and Connie Britton are among the entertainment greats who studied at Dartmouth.
Children’s author, illustrator, poet and filmmaker Theodor Seuss Geisel, who is best known for creating more than 60 books under the pen name Dr. Seuss, graduated from Dartmouth in 1925.
Duke University, Durham, NC
From its huge 8,600-acre campus, Duke University provides for more than 14,000 students. Its alumni list includes many business leaders, including Tim Cook (Apple) and David S. Taylor (Procter & Gamble). Sports stars are also in high number, with NBA greats Carlos Boozer, Christian Laettner and Kyrie Irving graduating from its athletic program.
Philanthropist Melinda Gates, who earned her bachelor’s degree in computer science and economics in 1986 and her master’s degree in business administration at The Fuqua School of Business a year later, gave a commencement speech at Duke in 2013. She told students that “no matter how much time passes… I always feel connected to Duke.”
California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, CA
The diverse group of famous faces who went to CalArts, which was founded in 1961 by a group of artists (including Walt Disney), include actor David Hasselhoff, jazz musician Ravi Coltrane and filmmaker Sofia Coppola. One of the school’s earliest film and video department graduating classes included Tim Burton, who went on to create some of the biggest gothic fantasy/horror films of all time, including “Edward Scissorhands,” “Beetlejuice” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
In November 2012, the Los Angeles Times reported that directors who had been students in the California Institute of the Arts’ animation programs had generated more than $26 billion at the box office since 1985.
“People think it was the businessmen, the suits, who turned Disney Animation around,” director and writer Brad Bird (“Ratatouille,” “The Iron Giant,” “The Incredibles”) told Vanity Fair. “But it was the new generation of animators, mostly from CalArts. They were the ones who saved Disney.”
University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
UChicago’s list of glittering alumni includes business giants like Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison. In the scientific fields, notable graduates include astronomers and cosmologists Carl Sagan and Edwin Hubble and physicists Luis Alvarez and Enrico Fermi.
The school also boasts a rich history of literary talent, including novelist Philip Roth, Nobel Prize-winner Saul Bellow and satirist Kurt Vonnegut. One of its most famous literary grads is writer, filmmaker, philosopher, teacher and political activist Susan Sontag (Class of ’51).
In 2015, director Nancy Kates was interviewed by UChicago News about her film, “Regarding Susan Sontag.” She emphasized the importance of Sontag’s time at the school, saying, “She really got that very classical, amazing University of Chicago education, and she used it to have a career in arts and letters.”
The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX
Many of Hollywood’s leading actors graduated from UT, including Renee Zellweger, Owen Wilson, Jon Hamm and Matthew McConaughey. McConaughey, who earned a film degree in 1993, has been a visiting instructor at the school’s Moody College of Communication since 2015 and taught filmmaking classes in 2019.
Beyond the big screen, many UT graduates have carved out major roles for themselves in other fields. Former First Ladies Laura Bush and Lady Bird Johnson went to UT, as did more than a few members of both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives. Some of the greatest athletes of all time, such as Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton and NFL placekicker Justin Tucker, are also among its alumni.
University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI
UM has one of the biggest alumni networks in the world with over 610,000 living alumni as of 2020. Many graduates have achieved great success in the entertainment industry, like actors Lucy Liu, James Earl Jones and David Alan Grier. Cultural icon Madonna attended UM in the 1970s, although she dropped out before completing her degree to pursue her pop career. In 2014, Madonna’s eldest daughter, Lourdes Leon, followed in her famous mom’s footsteps, enrolling at Ann Arbor to pursue a bachelor’s degree in fine arts in musical theater.
Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN
Named after shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, who gifted the school $1 million in 1873, Vanderbilt University counts two Vice Presidents — Al Gore and John Nance Garner — among its notable alumni. In 2019, Nobel Prize-winner Gore returned to his old school to head a global conversation on the climate crisis and its solutions.
Vanderbilt was a center of the Southern literature revival in the 1920s and ’30s, during which time many prized writers joined its alumni list. Among the poets and literary scholars who joined forces at Vanderbilt to create the literary magazine The Fugitive were Robert Penn Warren, Randall Jarrell and Allen Tate.
Emory University, Atlanta, GA
Emory counts a U.S. Vice President (Alben W. Barkley), several Pulitzer Prize winners (including Dumas Malone, Frank Main and Louis R. Harlan), an astronaut (Manley Lanier “Sonny” Carter), a golf ace (Robert Tyre “Bobby” Jones) and a legendary sportscaster (William Earnest “Ernie” Harwell) among its famous alumni.
Perhaps most notably, fashion designer Kenneth Cole graduated from the college in 1976.
William & Mary, Williamsburg, VA
Four former U.S. Presidents were William & Mary graduates: Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, John Tyler and George Washington. Outside of politics, the most famous name (and face) from the alumni list is the multi-award-winning actor Glenn Close, who graduated in 1974 with a theater and anthropology double major.
In 2019, Close served as the school’s commencement speaker. She told students, “What each of you have and what you must believe in, from this day forward, is your inherent uniqueness. Your singular point of view. No one looks out onto the world through your eyes. Your perspective is unique. It’s important and it counts. Try not to compare it to anyone else. Accept it. Believe in it. Nurture it. Stay fiercely, joyously connected to the friends you have made here, to those you love and trust. You will have each other’s backs for the rest of your lives.”
The star of 2017’s critically acclaimed “The Wife” also received an honorary fellowship from William & Mary, becoming only the third person in the university’s history to receive such an honor.
Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD
Among Johns Hopkins’ impressive alumni are scientists, authors, Oscar winners and a former U.S. President, Woodrow Wilson.
Michael R. Bloomberg, former New York City mayor, founder of Bloomberg L.P. and one-time candidate for the president, graduated from JHU in 1964 and the following year made his first donation to the school. The amount was $5. In 2018, Bloomberg made a slightly larger contribution; in fact, his donation of $1.8 billion was the largest ever contribution to any education institution in the U.S.
Johns Hopkins was also the school of choice for prominent Nigerian writer and activist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose 2012 TEDx talk “We Should All Be Feminists” went viral when Beyoncé used parts of it in her song “Flawless.”
The University of Colorado Boulder, Boulder, CO
Attending the University of Colorado Boulder was life-changing for three young men: Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Eric Stough. Parker and Stough already knew each other, having attended the same middle and high schools. Parker persuaded Stough to join him and Stone in the film department, and their early collaborations turned into one of the most successful animated TV series of all time. Today, more than 300 episodes of “South Park” have aired and won a slew of awards, including numerous Primetime Emmy Awards.
Olympic skier Billy Kidd, musician Glenn Miller and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak are also on the University of Colorado Boulder alumni list.