Yale's list of alumni reads like a who's who of American history. William Howard Taft, the 27th president of the United States; Robert Lovett, secretary of war to Truman; Senator John. F. Kerry; George. W. Bush, 43rd president of the U.S.; and Austan Goolsbee, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors are all political heavyweights and Yale grads. Harvey William Cushing, neurosurgeon; Benjamin McLane Spock, pediatrician; Paul Newman, actor and humanitarian; Bill Clinton, 42nd president of U.S.; Paul Krugman, economist; and journalist Anderson Cooper are some more examples of talented people who have graduated from Yale. Here's some other top-flight institutions who've produced some very prominent graduates:

MIT has 77 Nobel Laureate winners, 52 National Medal of Science winners and 38 MacArthur Fellows on its alumni rolls. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu graduated from MIT. Khan Academy founder Salman Khan, who is democratizing the study of science and math, is also an MIT alumnus. Amar Bose, the founder of Bose Corporation; Raymond Stata, co-founder of Analog Devices; and Yet-Ming Chiang, founder of A123 Systems are also MIT alumni.

Columbia University has distinguished alumni such as Teddy Roosevelt, 26th president of U.S.; Dwight Eisenhower, 34th president of U.S., Max Frankel, former executive editor of the New York Times and the winner of 1973 Pulitzer prize; and Warren Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway.

Penn State
Noam Chomsky, linguist and political commentator; Ezra Pound, an American poet and modernist; Nnamdi Azikiwe, the first president of Nigeria; William J. Brennan Jr., former associate justice of the U.S. supreme court; and Thomas McKean, signer of the Declaration of Independence are some of the influential alumni from Penn State University.

Where Schools Rank
A survey by Business Insider in November 2011 on America's top colleges showed MIT on top of the list. Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, the California Institute of Technology and Columbia also ranked high on the list.

What is it about these top universities that allow them to produce influential grads year after year? What is it about them that allows them to do this consistently? These universities select young men and women, some elite and some not, who undergo the rigors of university learning and go on to become captains of industry, innovators, researchers and leaders. They continue to contribute as alumni keeping the university philosophy alive through their contributions.

Today, students from Asia and Africa are enrolling in the top universities in America because they believe that the quality of training they receive there gives them a global mindset and an extra edge back in their home countries. Famous and powerful alumni are ambassadors for the universities they come from. The best universities attract the best talent. A college that boasts many Nobel Laureates can ask for no better publicity.

Naturally, universities need funding to keep a high-standard of education. They also need funds to expand existing programs and develop new ones. They do so by tapping into alumni networks. It is in the interest of alumni networks to ensure that their colleges stay on top.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his wife, both Princeton alumni, donated $15 million in 2011 to Princeton's neuroscience department. They did this because they believe the researchers at Princeton are using cutting-edge technology and processes to better understand the brain.

Alumni can be great sources of inspiration for current students. Students get to hear about how college skills will be useful and relevant to them and that they need to move out of their comfort zones. Many alumni go back to their universities to teach and share their experiences.

Critics of alumni networks say that they breed a sense of entitlement, with alumni expecting easy admission for their wards in part for the donations that they make. This is very unethical. Many universities are now trying to ensure that admissions and alumni networks are kept separate.

The Bottom Line
While not all powerful leaders and thinkers have graduated from one of the top five universities, many have. Some top universities are experimenting with online education and the future could see more students not limited by geography.

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