The 30 most successful Columbia alumni of all time

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Oracle of Omaha Warren Buffett got his master’s from Columbia in 1951.
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Getty Images / Michael Buckner

Columbia University is known for its top-ranking schools of law, business, and education – not to mention the undergraduate college itself.

With so many prestigious programs, it’s no surprise Columbia has produced a wide array of successful grads over the years, from sibling actors Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett.

Keep scrolling to see the most successful Columbia Lions of all time.


President Barack Obama began his undergraduate career at Occidental College in Los Angeles but transferred to Columbia, where he graduated in ’83 with a degree in political science. While in school he was “somewhat involved” with the Black Students Organization and participated in anti-Apartheid activities.

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Thomson Reuters

Source: Columbia University


Sibling actors Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal both studied at Columbia: Jake attended for two years in the late ’90s before dropping out to pursue his acting career, and Maggie graduated with a BA in literature in ’99. Jake gained critical acclaim for roles in films like “October Sky,” “Donnie Darko,” and “Brokeback Mountain.” Maggie is an indie-film darling known for “Secretary” and “Sherrybaby” and also costarred in the 2008 blockbuster “The Dark Knight,” which grossed $1 billion worldwide at the box office.

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Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Source: The Guardian, Biography.com, IMDb, IMDb


Pulitzer Prize-winning lyricist Ira Gershwin took pre-med classes at Columbia around 1918 but never graduated. Instead he went on to compose, with his brother George, the music to some of the world’s most popular musicals like “Funny Face,” “An American in Paris,” and “Porgy and Bess.”

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Amazon

Source: The World of Musicals: An Encyclopedia of Stage, Screen, and Song


Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca was a student for only a short time in 1929 before he left to pursue theater. He started his own theater company, La Barraca, in 1931, which produced his three most famous tragedies: “Blood Wedding,” “Yerma,” and “The House of Bernarda Alba.”

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YouTube/Clase de español

Source: Columbia University


The author of more than 400 books, Isaac Asimov got his science-fiction writing background from his education at Columbia. He finished his undergraduate degree in 1939, but returned in 1946 for a Ph.D. in chemistry. He’s received dozens of awards for works that include “I, Robot,” “The Bicentennial Man,” and “The Gods Themselves.”

Source: Columbia University


Sallie Krawcheck graduated from Columbia Business School in 1992. Krawcheck was a prominent figure on Wall Street, serving as the CEO of Citi Global Wealth Management and later as president of global wealth and investment management at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. She’s now the chair of global professional women’s network Ellevate.

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Business Insider

Source: Columbia University


Presidents Teddy and Franklin Delano Roosevelt — who were distantly related — each attended Columbia Law School, but neither officially graduated. In 1901, at age 43, Teddy Roosevelt became the youngest president in history when William McKinley was assassinated. FDR, who was president from 1933 to 1945, was known for the New Deal and other Great Depression programs. Both Roosevelts were awarded posthumous law degrees in 2008, making them official members of the classes of 1882 (Teddy) and 1907 (FDR).

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Teddy Roosevelt (left) and Franklin Delano Roosevelt
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Wikimedia Commons and Wikipedia

Source: Columbia Law School, WhiteHouse.gov


Afrobeat-influenced band Vampire Weekend got together when its members were all still students at Columbia: Ezra Koenig, Chris Tomson, and Rostam Batmanglij graduated in ’06, while Chris Baio graduated in ’07. All four members worked full-time jobs until their song “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” was ranked No. 67 on Rolling Stone’s “100 Best Songs of the Year.” In 2013 Vampire Weekend released its third album, “Modern Vampires of the City,” which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.

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From left: Rostam Batmanglij, Ezra Koenig, Chris Baio, and Chris Tomson
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Photo by Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty Images

Source: Columbia University, Vampire Weekend, Billboard


Amelia Earhart only attended Columbia for one semester in 1920 on a pre-med track before leaving for Los Angeles to be with her parents. She became hooked on flying soon after dropping out of school, and in May 1932 she took her famous flight across the Atlantic — the first woman to do it solo.

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Wikimedia Commons

Source: PBS


Jerry Ford transferred from Notre Dame to the midshipmen school at Columbia in the ’40s; it was there that he met his wife Eileen, who studied at Columbia’s sister school, Barnard. The two founded the prestigious Ford Modeling Agency, which has represented models like Christy Turlington, Twiggy, and Jane Fonda.

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Eileen and Jerry Ford
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Evan Agostini/Getty Images

Source: New York Times, Yahoo


Famous writer and poet (“Howl,” “Fall of America”) Allen Ginsberg met Lucien Carr, Jack Kerouac, and many other fellow Beatniks while a student at Columbia. After graduating in ’48 (it took him five years because he was expelled twice), he returned as a visiting professor in 1986.

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Wikipedia

Source: Columbia University


A student in the School of General Studies, Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax took classes in physics, architecture, and graphics in 1955 before becoming one of the most famous ball players of all time — and, in 1963, “one of the best paid among former students of the school.” He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1972.

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Wikipedia

Source: Columbia University, National Baseball Hall of Fame


In 1970, sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer received a doctorate of education from Columbia University Teacher’s College. Dr. Ruth built her career on providing relationship-saving sex advice on TV and the radio to individuals and couples. The author of more than 30 books, Dr. Ruth later returned to Columbia to teach.

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Cindy Ord/Getty Images

Source: DrRuth.com


Joseph Gordon-Levitt, made famous for his role on hit TV show “Third Rock from the Sun,” took a break from acting to attend Columbia in 2000, where he studied history, literature, and French poetry. In his fourth year, just shy of graduating, he dropped out and went back to acting full-time. He starred in the 2010 blockbuster “Inception,” which grossed $825 million worldwide, and won an Emmy last year for his show “HitRECord on TV.”

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Robin Marchant/Getty

Source: Business Insider, IMDb


Famous French chef Jacques Pépin left school at age 13 for a cooking apprenticeship, but he continued his studies in the US, graduating from Columbia’s School of General Studies in 1970. He eventually returned for a master’s in French literature. Pépin is an award-winning cookbook author and TV show host.

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Leigh Vogel/Getty Images

Source: Columbia University


The author of “Catcher in the Rye” and “Franny and Zooey,” reclusive literary icon J.D. Salinger attended Columbia in the late ’30s but never graduated. The Manhattan native took a short-story writing class and was rumored to have submitted to Quarto, the school’s undergraduate literary journal.

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Wikipedia

Source: Columbia Spectator


Xerox CEO Ursula Burns, who was raised by a single mother in New York City’s housing projects, got her master’s in mechanical engineering from Columbia in 1981. She joined Xerox right out of school, and in 2009 she was named CEO, becoming the first female African-American chief executive of a Fortune 500 company. In 2010 President Obama appointed Burns vice chair of the President’s Export Council.

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Reuters

Source: Makers, Columbia University


Famed gonzo journalist and author Hunter S. Thompson attended Columbia in the late ’50s but never graduated. When his most famous work, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” was adapted into a Hollywood film in 1998, he was played by Johnny Depp and the two became close friends.

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Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Source: Columbia University, Entertainment Weekly


Before legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick directed “Spartacus,” “A Clockwork Orange,” or “The Shining,” he took courses at Columbia in the ’40s, studying under writers Calvin Trillin and Mark Van Doren. Kubrick was originally interested in photography before moving on to film, garnering numerous Academy Award nominations but only winning one: best effects for the 1968 classic “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

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Reuters

Source: New York Times, Business Insider, IMDb


Historian and author Howard Zinn got his master’s and Ph.D. in history at Columbia in the 1950s. He enlisted in the Air Force during WWII so that he could study under the GI Bill. Zinn was involved in the civil rights and anti-war movements, and he wrote a number of books, including the famous “A People’s History of the United States.”

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Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

Source: HowardZinn.org


New York native Alicia Keys attended the prestigious Professional Performing Arts School and in 1997 was accepted to Columbia when she was just 16. She eventually dropped out to record music, gaining acclaim for hits like “If I Ain’t Got You,” “Fallin’,” and “Empire State of Mind.” She’s won 15 Grammys to date.

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Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Source: Rolling Stone, Grammy.com


From 1921 to 1922, poet Langston Hughes was an engineering student at Columbia, but he dropped out to write full time. In addition to his acclaimed poetry, Hughes also wrote novels, short stories, and screenplays, and became an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance.

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Wikipedia

Source: Columbia University


Alexander Hamilton attended Columbia in 1773 when it was still called King’s College. Though he enrolled at age 18, he was still one of the oldest students in his class (the average age was 14). Despite his college being affiliated with the king of England, Hamilton aligned with revolutionary causes; he eventually became the first secretary of the treasury.

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Alexander Hamilton
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Wikimedia Commons

Source: AlexanderHamiltonExhibition.org


Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg transferred from Harvard Law to Columbia Law in 1958, where she received top honors in her graduating class. She cofounded the ACLU Women’s Rights Project where she represented women in gender-discrimination cases before making the jump to the Supreme Court in 1993.

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Allison Shelley/Getty Images

Source: Columbia Law School


Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett delivered newspapers as a child in Nebraska before moving on to earn his master’s in economics from Columbia in 1951. The legendary value-investor made his name through a near-clairvoyant knack for making smart, long-term bets on companies like Coca-Cola and American Express, amassing a fortune that stands at $65 billion. Every year 20 lucky Columbia Business School students are randomly selected to fly to Nebraska and meet the Oracle of Omaha himself.

Source: Columbia University, Wealth-X