The 30 Most Influential Colleges and Universities of the Past Century

Universities provide a fertile ground for success and innovation. Many institutions around the world produce exceptional professionals who go on to make major contributions in a number of different fields. Some universities however, have established an exceptional track record of producing a rich collection of world leaders, innovators, and trailblazers. Let’s take a look at 30 universities that have been exceptionally influential over the last 100 years.

1. California Institute of the Arts

Los Angeles County, California, USA

Also known as CalArts, the California Institute of the Arts, was founded in 1961 by Walt Disney. Disney sought to establish an interdisciplinary and collaborative school in which art could be studied as a part of a dynamic creative process. So much so that students are even taught by professionals in the field. CalArts offers students the chance to pursue programs in the following areas: music, art, dance, theater, critical studies, and film.

Notable Alumni:

  • John Lasseter – Chief Creative Officer of both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios
  • Former Disney animator and highly acclaimed director Tim Burton
  • Brad Bird  – Academy Award winning Pixar director
  • Mark Andrews – Former Pixar employee, who is also a director and Academy Award winning animator

2. Georgetown University

Georgetown, Washington, D.C., USA

Georgetown University

Established in 1789, Georgetown University is the oldest Catholic and Jesuit institution in the United States. The university is renowned for its law school and programs in politics and legal studies. Georgetown’s campus is exceptionally well-known and boasts the iconic Healy Hall, a National Historic Landmark building. Healy Hall was also featured in the 1973 horror movie, the Exorcist.

Notable Alumni:

  • Former U.S. president Bill Clinton
  • BBC Worldwide North America’s COO Ann Sarnoff
  • Former director of the CIA and current Georgetown distinguished professor George Tenet
  • Toys “R” Us International founder Joseph R. Baczko
  • The Blackstone Group’s CFO Laurence A. Tosi
  • European Commission president and former Portuguese Prime Minister José Manuel Barroso

3. Brown University

Providence, Rhode Island, USA

Brown University was established in 1764 but moved its location to Providence in 1770. This Ivy League school is known for its commitment to intellectual freedom and diversity, and also takes a rigorous, multidisciplinary approach to academics. Though the school’s origins are intertwined with the Baptist Church, it is said that Brown University was the first U.S. college to admit students from any religious background. According to U.S. News & World Report, Brown was ranked as the 14th best university in the country in 2013.

Notable Alumni:

  • Spellcheck inventor John Seely Brown
  • Former Facebook CFO David Ebersman
  • Brian Moynihan, President and CEO of the Bank of America
  • John D. Rockefeller, Jr. – Celebrated financier
  • CNN founder Ted Turner
  • Seth Berkley who was the founder of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative
  • John Sculley, the millionaire Silicon Valley executive who was the president of Pepsi-Cola as well as the CEO of Apple

4. University of Michigan

Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA

University of Michigan

The University of Michigan was established in 1817. In 1837, the university moved to its present location in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The school offers programs in a number of areas such as engineering, social sciences, math, humanities, technology, and science.

Notable Alumni:

The University of Michigan has produced over 20 billionaires among its distinguished legions of alumni. Some of them include:

  • Jim Buckmaster – CEO of Craigslist
  • Brad Keywell – Cofounder of Groupon
  • Niklas Zennström – Cofounder of Skype
  • Dick Costolo – Former CEO of Twitter
  • Edgar N. Gott – Cofounder of Boeing
  • Larry Page – Cofounder of Google
  • Frederic L. Smith – Cofounder of General Motors
  • Tom S. Monaghan – Founder of Domino’s Pizza

5. University of Tokyo

Bunkyō, Tokyo, Japan

University of Tokyo

The University of Tokyo, also known as Todai, is considered one of the top colleges in Asia and is rated the 21st best school globally. Founded in 1877 and located in Tokyo’s Bunkyō ward, this university claims that it’s “researchers have been at the forefront of their fields”. Students can pursue subjects such as chemistry, physics, politics, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, as well as civil and structural engineering here.

Notable Alumni:

  • Seven Nobel Prize-winning alumni
  • 15 Japanese prime ministers
  • Kenzō Tange – Famous architect who has been described as one of the most significant architects of the 20th century

6. Bauhaus

Weimar/Dessau/Berlin, Germany

Bauhaus is a German word which means ‘house of building’. The university no longer exists; though this was the most famous modernist school for art-design and architecture in Germany, and is even recognized as part of world cultural heritage by UNESCO. Bauhaus originally opened in 1919 in Weimar, but due to mounting political pressure, it had to close and relocate to Dessau in 1925. The school was then closed down by the Nazis in 1931 because they deemed it ‘un-German’. In 1932, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the famous architect, set up a third Bauhaus school in Berlin which was shut down by the Gestapo in 1933. After all of this, Gropius, the original director of Bauhaus, left Germany and taught at Harvard along with another great Bauhaus alum, Marcel Breuer. Mies on the other hand, ventured off to Chicago and became the head of the architecture department at the Chicago’s Illinois Institute of Technology. Although Bauhaus is no longer in existence, the institute has had a profound effect on the fields of architecture, graphic design, as well as furniture.

Notable Alumni:

  • Wilhelm Wagenfeld
  • Herbert Bayer
  • Josef Albers
  • Marcel Breuer
  • Anni Albers

7. University of Toronto

Toronto, Ontario, Canada

University of Toronto

The University of Toronto was founded in1827 and is a public research university. It has been the birthplace of many important and groundbreaking innovations and discoveries. These include: 3D “bio-printer” that yields skin-like dressings for injuries; the discovery of insulin; the first serviceable electron microscope; the discovery of stem cells; the first ever nerve transplant; the earliest successful single and double lung transplants and the discovery of the T-cell receptor.

Notable Alumni:

  • Lester B. Pearson – Former Canadian prime minister, who was also a Nobel Peace Prize winner as well as a former history professor at U of T
  • Stephen Harper – Former Prime Minister of Canada
  • James Orbinski – Physician and activist who was also the president of Doctors Without Borders when it won the Nobel Peace Prize
  • Rogers Communications’ Ted Rogers
  • The Nobel Peace Prize winning inventors of insulin, Frederick Banting, Charles Best, and J. J. R. Macleod

8. Duke University

Durham, North Carolina, USA

Duke University

Duke University was founded in 1838 in Trinity, North Carolina. 54 years later, it moved its location to Durham, NC where it is presently located. This university has established itself as one of the best in the nation, with Forbes listing it on their 2012 “Power Factories” college list, and the U.S. News & World Report ranking its undergraduate program #7 on its list of National University Rankings.

Notable Alumni:

  • Charles Townes and Robert Coleman Richardson – Two Nobel Prize winning physicists
  • Mark Reuss – President of General Motors’ North American division
  • Jeff Williams – Senior vice president of operations at Apple
  • Amy Hood – First woman to become CFO at Microsoft
  • Soleio Cuervo – Designer at Facebook who created the ‘Like’ button
  • Katie J. Bayne – President of Coca-Cola
  • Duke University has also had 25 of its former students awarded the famous Winston Churchill Scholarship to Cambridge University , the third-highest number of recipients in the country

9. New York University

New York City, New York, USA

New York University, commonly referred to as NYU, was established in New York City in 1831 and is one of the largest private schools in the country. Its law and business schools are both very highly ranked. In fact, the Stern School of Business at NYU is ranked as one of the most prestigious and oldest business schools in the world. Stern graduates have progressed to corporate positions in major centers of finance including Wall Street.

Notable Alumni:

  • Larry Silverstein – The owner of the World Trade Center and real estate mogul
  • Thomas E. Dooley – Chief operating officer at Viacom
  • Jack Dorsey – Co-creator of Twitter
  • Ursula Burns – Chairman and CEO of Xerox
  • Robert Greifeld – CEO at NASDAQ
  • Robert J. Stevens – Executive chairman of Lockheed Martin
  • The first billionaire from Iceland,Thor Björgólfsson
  • Among its list of alumni, NYU has also produced 19 Pulitzer Prize winners

10. University of Pennsylvania

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

The University of Pennsylvania or UPenn was founded in 1740 and was one of 14 founding members of the Association of American Universities and one of the nine original Colonial Colleges. UPenn also claims to be the first university in the United States. Benjamin Franklin, the founder of UPenn, was instrumental in making it the academic institution that it has become today. UPenn pioneered the earliest medical school in the US, established the first American student union center, and founded the earliest American business school, the Wharton School. Today, Wharton is considered to be one of the best business schools in the world.

Notable Alumni:

  • Noam Chomsky
  • Donald Trump
  • Warren Buffet
  • Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal, Tesla Motors, and SpaceX

11. Imperial College London

London, England, U.K.

Imperial College London was established in 1907 and is considered to be one of the best institutions for higher education. It is well-known for its emphasis on engineering, business, as well as the sciences. Imperial has an excellent reputation for its biomedical research as well. What’s more, in 2012, a survey conducted by The New York Times concerning graduate employability ranked Imperial 9th in the world.

Notable Alumni:

  • Alexander Fleming – The pharmacologist who discovered penicillin and subsequently won a Nobel Prize
  • Geoffrey Wilkinson and Derek Barton – Two Nobel Prize winning chemists who not only studied at Imperial, but also worked here too
  • Brian May – Guitarist for rock band Queen and an astrophysicist

12. University of Edinburgh

Edinburgh, Scotland, U.K.

The University of Edinburgh was founded in 1583 and was instrumental in establishing the Scottish capital as the “Athens of the North” during the Age of Enlightenment. The school has maintained its reputation and continues to be a center of excellence. Dolly the sheep, the world’s first cloned mammal, was created at the university. In addition, the “strong programme” school of sociological thought is closely related with the university and has had a lasting impact on many fields including technology, science, and even society.

In 2013, the Global Employability University Ranking ranked the school’s graduates as the 15th most popular with employers globally.

Notable Alumni:

  • Charles Darwin
  • Pippa Middleton
  • Gordon Brown, former British Prime Minister
  • Syria’s first female vice president Najah al-Attar
  • Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Marcus Mumford
  • Alexander Graham Bell

13. University of Paris

Paris, France

University of Paris

The University of Paris, also known as the Sorbonne, was established in the 12th century. Between 1793 and 1896, the university was suspended and when it reopened in 1970, it was eventually split into 13 independent schools. Nevertheless, the University of Paris has, despite all of these changes, managed to establish itself as one of the most influential institutions in the world.

Notable Alumni:

  • Habib Bourguiba – The first President of Tunisia
  • Roland Barthes – Famed critic and literary theorist
  • Marie Curie – The physicist and chemist who won a Nobel Prize twice for her work on radioactivity
  • John Napier Turner – Former Prime Minister of Canada
  • Norman Mailer – Famed writer who won the Pulitzer Prize twice
  • François Mitterrand – Former President of France
  • Ibrahim Rugova – The first president of Kosovo
  • Claude Lévi-Strauss – The anthropologist and ethnologist associated with the theory of structuralism and structural anthropology

14. King’s College London

London, England, U.K.

King’s College London was founded in 1829 and is a public research university. Its medical school features four teaching hospitals and is considered to be the largest healthcare training facility in all of Europe.  KCL places a high degree of importance on research and therefore, it comes as no surprise that the university has:

  • Played a vital role in the discovery of DNA structure
  • Made advancements which resulted in the discovery of radar, cell phones, radio, and TV

For the past five years, KCL has focused on the following fields: cancer research, neuroscience, children’s health, society and leadership, and mental well-being.

Notable Alumni:

  • Nobel Peace Prize-winning human rights activist and former Archbishop of Cape Town Desmond Tutu
  • Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist Peter Higgs
  • Nobel Prize-winning biophysicist Michael Levitt
  • Florence Nightingale

15. Johns Hopkins University

Baltimore, Maryland, USA

Johns Hopkins University is located in Baltimore, Maryland and was established in 1876. The university’s hospital facility is world renowned and is credited for introducing rounds and residents. Many medical specialties including heart surgery, child psychiatry, and neurosurgery were also pioneered here.

Notable Alumni:

  • Woodrow Wilson – Former U.S. president and Nobel Peace Prize Winner
  • Wes Craven – Famous movie director
  • Murray Kempton – Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist
  • Wolf Blitzer – CNN news anchor
  • Michael Bloomberg – Former mayor of New York City
  • Peter Agre – Nobel Prize winning chemist who is currently a professor at Johns Hopkins

16. University College London

London, England, U.K.

University College London

University College London, also known as UCL, was established in 1826. It is the oldest constituent college of the University of London. UCL was the first university established in London, and the first institution of its kind which didn’t discriminate against women. Today, UCL is an ‘intellectual powerhouse” (as quoted by The Sunday Times) that offers excellent programs in a wide range of disciplines. These include social sciences, humanities, life sciences, arts, and clinical and health studies. Furthermore, it is ideally situated in the heart of London with an exceedingly cosmopolitan student body, with about half of the students originating from outside the U.K.

Notable Alumni:

  • Nobel Prize-winning scientist Francis Crick
  • Alexander Graham Bell
  • Mahatma GandhiHighly acclaimed movie director Christopher Nolan

17. California Institute of Technology

Pasadena, California, USA

The California Institute of Technology, also known as Caltech, was established in 1891 in Pasadena, California. The University has been ranked by The Academic Ranking of World Universities as the sixth best university in the world every year since 2004. Caltech’s primary area of focus is engineering and sciences. It, therefore, comes as no surprise that Caltech has traditionally had a long standing rivalry with another school focused on science and engineering, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Notable Alumni:

  • Gordon E. Moore – Co-founder of Intel
  • David Ho – The prolific AIDS researcher who was named TIME’s Man of the Year in 1996
  • C. Gordon Fullerton, Harrison Schmitt, and Frank Borman – All of whom are astronauts

18. Columbia University

Manhattan, New York, USA

Columbia University

Columbia University was established in 1754 in Manhattan, New York, and was originally called King’s College. This illustrious university is renowned for its arts and humanities, management, and social science departments. The Columbia School of Linguistics, a group of linguists, which stresses a highly functional idea of language, was founded by the famous linguist William Diver. To date, Columbia has produced 101 Nobel Prize winners, an achievement that is only outdone by Harvard. In addition, it has produced 20 billionaires, over two-dozen Oscar winners, and 29 heads of state.

Notable Alumni:

  • Former U.S. Presidents Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt
  • U.S. President Barack Obama
  • America’s first female Secretary of State Madeleine Albright
  • American businessman Warren Buffett

19. Cornell University

Ithaca, New York, USA

Cornell University

Established in 1865, Cornell University has consistently proven itself to be an egalitarian institution, which takes in students from all backgrounds, religions, and races. Cornell offers prospective students the chance to choose from a wide range of courses and therefore is one of the most diverse Ivy League institutions. The school also established the first hotel administration, veterinary, industrial, and labor relations schools in the United States. As of 2001, Cornell’s medical school, the Weill Medical College, opened up in Qatar and became the first U.S. medical school established outside of the U.S. According to a 2013 QS Top Universities survey, the school’s highest-rated subject is agriculture and forestry.

Notable Alumni:

  • James McLamore – Co-founder of Burger King
  • Henry Heimlich – Inventor of the Heimlich maneuver
  • Jon Rubinstein – Developer of iPod
  • Barbara McClintock – Nobel Prize winning scientist

20. Princeton University

Princeton, New Jersey, USA

Princeton University, located in New Jersey, was established in 1746. This makes it the fourth oldest university in the United States. Although the school’s principal academic focus is the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, Princeton also provides a host of other professional degrees and has a strong tradition of religious scholarship.

Notable Alumni:

  • U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama
  • Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt
  • Forbes CEO and President Steve Forbes
  • Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos
  • Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard FeynmanAcclaimed filmmaker Ethan Coen


21. ETH Zürich

Zürich, Switzerland

ETH Zürich was founded in Switzerland in 1855 and is considered to be one of the best universities in Europe. ETH is renowned for its engineering and technology programs. The Times Higher Education World University Ranking list ranked it eighth in the world. The school also has a strong architecture program. In fact, the Harvard Graduate School of Design offers its students the chance to do an architectural exchange program at ETH Zürich.

Notable Alumni:

  • Albert Einstein

22. University of Chicago

Chicago, Illinois, USA

The University of Chicago, or UChicago, is a private research university which was founded in 1890. It has consistently been in the top ten on the Ranking of World Universities list for many years and has solidified its place as an influential intellectual hub. UChicago has made huge contributions in many fields including sociology, law, physics, literary criticism, and economics. The university is also associated with a highly influential intellectual tradition, namely, the Chicago school of economics. This tradition is related to the freshwater school of macroeconomic thought, and has a lasting impact and effect on economics, law, political science, and a number of other related areas.

Notable Alumni:

  • UChicago is associated with 89 Nobel laureates
  • Edwin Hubble
  • Carl Sagan
  • David Suzuki
  • Milton Friedman

23. Yale University

New Haven, Connecticut, USA

Yale University

Founded in 1701, and then moved to New Haven in 1716, Yale University originally aimed to train leaders and teach clergy for the territory. Today, this private Ivy League research university is the third oldest institution of higher education in the U.S. and is divided into 12 constituent schools.

Notable Alumni:

  • Hillary Rodham Clinton
  • James Franco
  • Bill Clinton
  • Paul Krugman – Nobel laureate and noted economist
  • Edward Norton
  • Author and journalist Tom Wolfe
  • Meryl Streep
  • John Kerry
  • Anderson Cooper

24. Stanford University

Stanford, California, USA

Stanford University

Established in 1891, Stanford University has a rich history of producing some of the greatest entrepreneurs. As a result, the Silicon Valley became famous for some of the most high profile business minded individuals in the world.

Notable Alumni:

  • Phil Knight – Co-founder and chairman of Nike
  • Sally Ride – The first American woman to go to Space
  • William Hewlett and David Packard – Founders of Hewlett-Packard
  • Doris F. Fisher – Co-founder of Gap clothing
  • Thomas Dibblee – Famed geologist
  • Reed Hastings – CEO and co-founder of Netflix
  • Eileen Collins – The first woman to be a space shuttle commander
  • Jerry Yang and David Filo – Co-founders of Yahoo!
  • Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger – Co-founders of Instagram
  • Sergey Brin and Larry Page – Co-founders of Google

25. University of California, Berkeley

Berkeley, California, USA

University of California Berkeley

The University of California, Berkeley was established in 1868 and is one of the founding members of the Association of American Universities. The university encourages student activism. This is evidenced by the fact that in 1964, students of Berkeley were involved in demonstrations such as the anti-Vietnam War protests and the Free Speech Movement. UC Berkeley has also made significant contributions to the fields of science, law, and economics.

Notable Alumni:

  • UC Berkeley is affiliated with 72 Nobel Prize winners including Hamilton Smith (medicine), Thomas Schelling (economics)  and Willis Lamb (physics)
  • Tom Anderson – One of the founders of social networking site MySpace
  • Douglas Engelbart – The inventor of the computer mouse
  • Steve Wozniak – Co-founder of Apple
  • Gordon Moore – Co-founder of Intel

26. University of Cambridge

Cambridge, England, U.K.

University of Cambridge

Cambridge University is the third oldest university in the world and was established in 1209. The university is renowned for being the birthplace of groundbreaking scientific achievement, and yet, also has a very strong literary tradition.

Notable Alumni:

  • The university has been affiliated with 91 Nobel laureates
  • Sir Isaac Newton
  • Naturalist David Attenborough
  • Bertrand Russell
  • Primatologist Jane Goodall
  • Henry Cavendish
  • Salman Rushdie
  • Charles Darwin
  • John Milton
  • Francis Bacon
  • Lord Byron
  • John Maynard Keynes

27. University of Oxford

Oxford, England, U.K.

University of Oxford

The University of Oxford has a long and prolific history, with evidence pointing to the fact that teaching at the university can be traced all the way back to 1096. The university is made up of 38 constituent colleges and is renowned for its programs in philosophy, religion, mathematics, literature, science, politics, and economics. Oxford University has also produced over 12 saints, 26 British prime ministers and 20 Archbishops of Canterbury to date. Oxford also offers the Rhodes Scholarship and Clarendon Scholarship, two of the world’s preeminent graduate scholarships.

Notable Alumni:

  • Edwin Hubble – Famous astronomer
  • Bill Clinton
  • Stephen Hawking
  • Dr. Seuss – Famous children’s author
  • J.R.R. Tolkien – Author of the Lord of the Rings, and many other books, who was also a teacher at Oxford for over three decades
  • Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, and David Cameron – British prime ministers
  • Tim Berners-Lee – Inventor of the World Wide Web

28. Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT, was established in 1865 and has been the epicenter of ground breaking scientific innovations especially in the fields of physical science as well as engineering. In addition, recent years have seen the university make strides in other fields including economics, linguistics, biology, and management. MIT’s computer science department has had a pivotal involvement in the areas of cryptography, computer languages, machine learning, artificial intelligence, cybernetics and robotics. In 2013 MIT topped the annual QS World University Rankings list.

Notable Alumni:

  • Benjamin Netanyahu – Current Prime Minister of Israel
  • Kofi Annan – The Nobel Peace Prize-winning former United Nations Secretary-General
  • “Buzz” Aldrin – Famous astronaut
  • I. M. Pei – Highly acclaimed, award winning architect

29. Harvard University

Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

Established in 1636 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University is considered the number one college in the world, and has been since 2003 according to the Academic Ranking of World Universities. This Ivy League school’s law and business schools are world renowned, with excellent placement opportunities upon graduation.

Notable Alumni:

  • Barack Obama – Current President of the United States
  • Ban Ki-moon – The current Secretary General of the United Nations
  • Lloyd Blankfein – The CEO and chairman of Goldman Sachs
  • John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt – Former Presidents of the United States

30. Dartmouth University

Hanover, New Hampshire, USA

Situated in Hanover, New Hampshire and founded in 1769, Dartmouth College is one of the best universities for studying engineering, business, medicine, and liberal arts. The U.S. News & World Report ranked Dartmouth #10 in its list of top U.S. universities in 2014. Dartmouth’s business school, the Tuck School of Business, is one of the most highly ranked business schools in the world.

Notable Alumni:

  • Reyn Guyer – Famous American inventor
  • eBay CEO John Donahoe
  • Former New York Times Company CEO Janet L. Robinson
  • Nobel Prize-winning scientists Owen Chamberlain, Karl Sharpless and George Davis Snell