Celebrities Care, Too: Hollywood’s “Brightest” Stars

Did you know that Cindy Crawford enrolled at Northwestern University to study chemical engineering? Or that Winnie from the The Wonder Years has a degree in mathematics? Or that Mira Sorvino is fluent in Mandarin Chinese?

Women in Hollywood are called many things, but rarely the word “educated.” Hollywood can’t keep a secret when it comes to the latest gossip scandal, but a peep is rarely heard when it comes to many female celebrities’ scholarly endeavors. Nevertheless, closer inspection reveals that many of Hollywood’s stars are smarter than the public gives them credit for.

More Than A Quick Mention

Fame often comes at a cost and for some celebrities, the price is a college education.  Many young actresses, singers and models begin their careers just as they are finishing high school — that is, if they decide to finish (some never go back to school while others obtain their GED at a later date).

At the beginning of their budding careers, teen celebrities are likely to make mention of eventually going to college, but most of these plans never come to fruition. The women who speak about education in an offhand manner do so in the hopes of legitimatizing their careers (as if a quick mention proves that they care more about school than Louis Vuitton bags or parties). But for each wishy-washy celebrity superfically using education  to add weight to the public’s perception of them, there is a woman who has given serious thought to pursuing higher education.

A Tough Decision

Many female celebrities go through the college application process, are accepted, and then must make the tough decision between education and their potential careers in show business.

For example, Katie Holmes was accepted into Columbia University only one week after filming the pilot for Dawson’s Creek. Holmes attended a summer session in New York before deciding to defer her enrollment (for eight years!) before finally dropping the plan altogether.

Similarly, the classically trained Alicia Keys was accepted into Columbia after graduating at the age of 16 as valedictorian of her class. Forfeiting a scholarship, Keys dropped out after one semester to sign a recording contract.

Choosing between a dream and an education is difficult enough — but there are celebrities who, like Keys, have had to choose between a scholarship and their dream to entertain. Take, for instance, American Idol star, Kelly Clarkson, who was offered several music scholarships, but moved to LA to pursue her singing dreams instead.

Madonna’s story follows a similar trajectory: In the late ’70s, a young Madonna was two years into her full-ride scholarship at the University of Michigan’s dance program. As part of her studies, she participated in a six-week program at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City. The experience of working with leading professionals, coupled with support from her dance instructor, led Madonna to drop out.

Trading Magazine Headlines for Textbooks

Most people understand why celebrities would defer education to take advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but what about the celebrities who pursue education after they have already been in the spotlight? Such a decision potentially puts a star’s career on the line — but for some, it’s worth the risk.

As a teen actress, Natalie Portman told everyone, “I’m going to college. I don’t care if it ruins my career. I’d rather be smart than a movie star.” She followed through with this statement, enrolling at Harvard University at the age of 18. At this point, she had already appeared in “Star Wars Episode I” and had been nominated for a Golden Globe.

At the time, her Where the Heart Is co-star, Ashley Judd, supported the decision: “She could not be doing anything more smart. I think that the adventures that await her at school, and the explorations of her talents in science and math are far greater than any storytelling she could have in cinema, I really do.”  Fitting words from Judd, who studied French at the University of Kentucky and recently began a Master’s degree in public administration at Harvard.

Actress Claire Danes shared a similar sentiment. After reportedly turning down the lead role in Titanic, Danes went on to study psychology at Yale University. Although she never graduated, she still found the experience to be transformative. “College was just so essential for my sense of self and my development.

Higher Education, Higher Pressure

Besides the burden of staying relevant in showbiz, there is pressure on female celebrities to keep up academically. Danes revealed her anxiety in an interview with Vogue magazine: “I’m really fearful that I’ll be completely inadequate as a student.

The expectation of failure is high; the public — and their peers — assume that celebrities were granted admission on the basis of their fame rather than their intelligence.

Unlike most normal college students, celebrities must do the same amount of work as their peers while under a microscope. The “perk” of being famous becomes a huge distraction on a campus for higher learning.
One female celebrity who knows all about this is Harry Potter star Emma Watson.  After gaining acceptance into several Ivy League colleges, Watson chose to study at Brown University. Upon her arrival in 2009, she was “mobbed by adoring fans.

Throngs of distracting fans were a big reason why child-star moguls Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen decided not to live in the dorms at New York University. They never blended in as normal students, even when they tried (their dressed-down fashion choices for classes often became tabloid fodder). Ashley Olsen remembers the difficulties of trying to be a normal student: “When I came to [NYU], it was really tough for the first couple of months because I couldn’t show up to some classes, because there’d be paparazzi outside.” The paparazzi’s constant disruption of their education, in addition to the highly publicized health issues of Mary-Kate Olsen, probably contributed greatly to their decision to eventually leave NYU.

Being on campus is at times uncomfortable — even for celebrities not as high profile as the Olsen twins. Julia Stiles, who decided to live in the dorms of Columbia University for two years, said that “having to get dressed up for a premiere and walk through the campus was really awkward, or having a limo pick me up outside my dorm.

The Finish Line

Stiles, who obtained her bachelor’s degree in English in 2005, joins many women in Hollywood who have their degrees (see a list at the end of this blog post). It’s an impressive feat, especially since she worked on many acting projects while in school. Even more impressive are the women who have undertaken graduate studies, like Desperate Housewife, Marcia Cross, who has a master’s degree in psychology and Gilmore Girl, Lauren Graham, who has a master of fine arts in acting performance. Supermodel Christy Turlington is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public health at Columbia University and Meryl Streep has her master of fine arts in drama.

Perhaps the most accomplished erudite in Hollywood is none other than Mayim Hoya Bialik, star of the hit 90′s sitcom, BlossomBialik was awarded her Ph.D in Neuroscience in 2008. In the words of Joey from the show–”Whoa!

Celebrities often represent the lifestyles of the rich, fabulous and frivolous, but there’s often more to them than meets the eye. The next time you’re watching or listening to the biggest stars in Hollywood, remember that they may be bright in more ways than one.

Want to make a difference for tomorrow’s college students? Take action:

More celebrities with college degrees

  •     Amanda Peet – Columbia University
  •     Amy Poehler – Boston College
  •     Brooke Shields – Princeton University
  •     Carrie Underwood – Northeastern State University
  •     Cynthia Nixon – Barnard College
  •     Danica McKellar – University of California Los Angeles
  •     Debra Messing – Brandeis University
  •     Eva Longoria Parker – Texas A&M University
  •     Evangeline Lilly – University of British Columbia
  •     Felicity Huffman – New York University
  •     Gabrielle Union – University of California Los Angeles
  •     Idina Menzel – New York University
  •     Ivanka Trump – University of Pennsylvania
  •     Jenna Fischer – Truman State University
  •     Jennifer Garner – Denison University
  •     Jodi Foster – Yale University
  •     Kristin Davis – Rutgers University
  •     Lisa Kudrow – Vassar College
  •     Lucy Liu – University of Michigan
  •     Maggie Gyllenhaal – Columbia University
  •     Mira Sorvino – Harvard University
  •     Natalie Portman – Harvard University
  •     Oprah Winfrey – Tennessee State University
  •     Padma Lakshmi – Clark University
  •     Rachel McAdams – York University
  •     Renee Zellwegger – University of Texas at Austin
  •     Sheryl Crow – University of Missouri
  •     Tina Fey – University of Virginia

Photo Courtesy of Ursulakm
http://www.flickr.com/photos/23489340@N04 / CC BY-SA 2.0


Andrea M.
Andrea M7 years ago

What a great article and so inspiring. It must be hard trying to be "normal" and still get an education. The comments from Julia Stiles talking about how awkward it was to get dressed for movie premieres or pickup by a limo were very eye-opening. I never thought about that. I'm not an Ashley/Mary Kate fan, but I admire them for their decision not to live on campus. College students do have an advantage with so many college classes available online. Although there is nothing like being on campus, taking online classes would also prevent the throngs of paparazzi. In these cases, the school should provide security for the "star". I did find it funny that the article doesn't mention any male celebrities with degrees. The list that is presented is quite impressive though. There's more to life than just making movies. At least all these women have something to fall back on should they decide to go in a different direction. I don't condone any of the women who dropped out of school to pursue their acting/singing careers, however. If they hadn't they might have missed their chance.
I think all child actors/actresses should pursue college. It's sad to read about the downfall of so many childhood actors/actresses. When they grow into adults, their career is basically over-except in rare cases.

It's nice to have something to admire of these women other than their acting/singing talents.

Tammy Smith
T Zabel7 years ago

Interesting article

Nellie K A.
Nellie K Adaba7 years ago

Education comes first than celebrity status or dream career. That's what I'm doing. I don't want to be a celebrity but I'm already a local celebrity/famous. I'll be famous for making a difference in this world all over.

Nellie K A.
Nellie K Adaba7 years ago

That's good because you would think that most celebrities don't care about helping and being charitable, generous and compassionate.

Fenny D.
Fenny D7 years ago

I think education is still important even though they are already have a job since they're young. Thumbs up for those celebrities who choose to study than to act act and act :D

Dominic C.
Dominic C7 years ago

@ Meredith

Ha! Ha! At least I got your attention. If not then efforts will be lost putting up all the info. Well, if you are up to it you can check the rest.

Etienne F.
Etienne F7 years ago

An education is always a good thing, and like the saying--"fame is fleeting". Good looks and even the rare talent can't support you forever (usually, especially for pop idols or models), and education is always an option to fall back on. Plus, it sends the message that instead of taking drugs or drinking heavily, as a role model to many adoring fans you should act in a civilized and intelligent way. Kudos. make a wish: http://www.real-wishes.com

Hannah K.
Hannah K.7 years ago

They can afford it, so they should go for it.

Liz Thompson
Elisabeth T7 years ago

thanks for the article

June B.
June B.7 years ago