The 14 Most Stunning Outdoor Settings for College Commencement

Swarthmore College

Every May, about 350 seniors at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, PA, head to the Scott Amphitheater to receive their diplomas. While the commencement spotlight is on the graduates, it just as easily could shine on the outdoor amphitheater itself.

Tulip poplar trees form the bulk of the amphitheater’s columns. The canopies of those trees create what the college calls a “living ceiling.” Evergreens — American holly, oriental spruce and red cedar — encircle the amphitheater. Hundreds of rhododendrons grow at the amphitheater’s edges.

“Built into a heavily wooded, steep natural slope, the amphitheater is minimally and elegantly formed entirely of natural materials. It is truly a blending of nature and man,” says Swarthmore, a private liberal arts and engineering school near Philadelphia, PA.

Scott Amphitheater

At Swarthmore College, commencement has been held at Scott Amphitheater since 1942.
Photo: Swarthmore College

Constructed in 1941 at a cost of $16,572, the Scott Amphitheater hosted its first commencement ceremonies a year later. The eight-tier venue can seat about 2,000 people. Over the course of nearly 75 years, well over 100,000 people have witnessed Swarthmore commencement amid the splendor of nature.

Thanks to this one-of-a-kind environment, Swarthmore tops our list of the 14 Most Stunning Outdoor Settings for College Commencement. In compiling our list, we judged colleges and universities across the U.S. based on natural beauty, landscaping, architecture and other factors. We focused only on venues for schoolwide commencement and excluded schools that hold their commencements at outdoor stadiums.

Here are the 14 schools that are at the top of their class for outdoor commencement venues. Please forgive us if we overlooked a school that you think deserves to be on this list.

1. Swarthmore College
Location: Swarthmore, PA
Commencement Setting: Scott Outdoor Amphitheater
Why We Like It: Serene tree-filled setting creates intimate atmosphere

Swarthmore College

Photo: Swarthmore College

2. Pepperdine University
Location: Malibu, CA
Commencement Setting: Alumni Park
Why We Like It: 30 acres of lawns, hills, ponds and trees offer spectacular view of Pacific Ocean

Pepperdine University

Photo: Pepperdine University

3. George Washington University
Location: Washington, DC
Commencement Setting: National Mall
Why We Like It: U.S. Capitol and Washington Monument are magnificent bookends in “America’s Front Yard”

George Washington University

Photo: Rival DC

4. Columbia University
Location: New York City, NY
Commencement Setting: Morningside Heights Campus
Why We Like It: Grand architecture in Manhattan provides stately atmosphere, with Low Memorial Library as centerpiece

Columbia University

Photo: Columbia University

5. University of Redlands
Location: Redlands, CA
Commencement Setting: Alumni Greek Theatre
Why We Like It: Panoramic view highlights Greek-inspired environment

University of the Redlands

Photo: University of Redlands

6. University of California, Santa Barbara
Location: Santa Barbara, CA
Commencement Setting: Faculty Club Green
Why We Like It: Impressive venue sits along UCSB Lagoon

UCSB commencement

Photo: University of California, Santa Barbara

7. College of Charleston
Location: Charleston, SC
Commencement Setting: Cistern Yard
Why We Like It: Live oak trees draped with Spanish moss accentuate college’s oldest building

College of Charleston

Photo: College of Charleston

8. Marist College
Location: Poughkeepsie, NY
Commencement Setting: Campus Green
Why We Like It: Green space overlooks tree-lined Hudson River

Marist College

Photo: Marist College

9. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
Location: Cambridge, MA
Commencement Setting: Killian Court
Why We Like It: Parallel rows of trees lead to Beaux-Arts-style Building 10, which is topped by Great Dome


Photo: MIT

10. Georgetown University
Location: Washington, DC
Commencement Setting: Healy Lawn
Why We Like It: Neo-Medieval-style Healy Hall towers over massive green space

Georgetown University

Photo: Georgetown University

11. Wake Forest University
Location: Winston-Salem, NC
Commencement Setting: Hearn Plaza
Why We Like It: Lush trees surround iconic Georgian Revival-style buildings 

Wake Forest

Photo: Wake Forest University

12. University of Charleston
Location: Charleston, WV
Commencement Setting: Riverfront Lawn
Why We Like It: Riverside venue features view of state Capitol on opposite bank of Kanahwa River

University of Charleston

Photo: Charleston Gazette-Mail

13. Catholic University of America
Location: Washington, DC
Commencement Setting: Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Why We Like It: Byzantine-Romanesque-style basilica is largest Roman Catholic church in North America

Catholic University

Photo: Catholic University of America

14. Vassar College
Location: Poughkeepsie, NY
Commencement Setting: Outdoor Amphitheater
Why We Like It: Numerous trees enliven amphitheater, which overlooks Sunset Lake

Vassar College

Photo: Webner House blog

Top photo: The Cultural Landscape Foundation


John Egan

John Egan is the former editor in chief of Now, he is a freelance writer extraordinaire. He lives in Austin, Texas.