Here’s How Colleges Land Big-Time Celebrities for Commencement

You won't believe what some schools will do to book a celebrity guest.

AP/ShutterstockSteve Jobs. J.K. Rowling. Tom Hanks. Oprah Winfrey. Billy Joel. Ellen Degeneres. Chuck Norris. Kermit the Frog.

What do these people have in common (besides being grossly more famous than any of us will ever be)? They’ve all given graduation speeches at universities across the country. As a former college student, I can confirm that soon-to-be grads do wait in suspense to find out who will give the last lecture of their college careers. Not just in hopes of a speaker who will deliver a memorable address with the right balance of humor, eloquence, and inspiration—but also for bragging rights among friends at other schools who couldn’t land a notable name.

So how do colleges and universities score famous commencement speakers willing to take time out of their busy schedules and prepare students for the real world? It basically boils down to three things:

They make a wish list

Generally, schools will get input from a committee, comprised of all students or a combination of students, alumni, faculty, and administrators, that puts together a list of potential speakers. The university president reviews that list, makes the final decision, and extends an invitation to that individual more than a year before the actual ceremony. Ultimately, they’re looking for someone who embodies the school’s mission and can inspire graduates as they enter the next stage of their lives. But let’s be real. Getting a celebrity guest is a best-case scenario. It gives the university a certain level of prestige. It brings inevitable publicity, attracting incoming freshmen with hopes that their graduation will also feature an actor or late-night TV host. It also comes at an absurd cost.

They pay through the nose

Rutgers University paid $30,000 for Nobel-winning author Toni Morrison to deliver the 2011 commencement address. The University of Massachusetts-Amherst dished out $25,000 to Neil Degrasse Tyson, who spoke for about 15 minutes when he was only allotted eight. In fact, about 30 percent of all colleges pay speaking fees for commencement speakers, according to Michael Fricke, president of Speakers Platform. The final bill can end up being as high as six figures. In 2015, the University of Houston paid Matthew McConaughey $166,000 to deliver its commencement address. Katie Couric received $110,000 to speak at the University of Oklahoma in 2006. Both donated their earnings to charity.

However, these numbers have sparked a debate over whether universities are putting tuition dollars to the best use, especially when tuition costs keep rising and student loan debt is now over $1 trillion. (You need these 17 money-saving habits in your life.)

They reach out to alumni

This is probably the easiest pool to pick from when it comes to commencement speakers. Alumni are enthusiastic about returning to campus, and students get excited that a celebrity went to the same school. Just this year, Will Ferrell gave the commencement at the University of Southern California, and Nick Offerman went back to his alma mater, the University of Illinois. Famous alumni speakers may not even charge a speaking fee, like Ryan Seacrest when he spoke at the University of Georgia. That’s a win-win for everyone.

Then, there are people who aren’t alumni but still have a strong relationship with a university. That’s how Steve Jobs famously got asked to speak at Stanford University in 2005, which he did without compensation or an honorary degree. Another perk of being an Ivy League school: They rarely pay for speakers because the speakers consider it an honor just to be asked.

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