What Is the Ivy League?

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Published on August 5, 2020 · Updated on March 22, 2022

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What Is the Ivy League?

Elite students, ivy-covered buildings, tree-lined quads, and prestigious alumni. The Ivy League includes many of the highest-ranked universities in the world. Every U.S. president since the 1980s holds an Ivy League degree, and every current member of the Supreme Court attended an Ivy League law school.

But what is the Ivy League exactly? And how much is an Ivy League education worth?

Students lie in the sun on a large grassy lawn outside a Harvard University campus building.

Photo by Rick Friedman/rickfriedman.com/Corbis via Getty Images

A Brief History of the Ivy League

At a basic level, the Ivy League is an athletic conference consisting of eight private colleges and universities. But the Ivy League refers to much more than just college athletics.

As an athletic conference, the Ivy League officially began in 1954.

The schools that comprise the Ivy League boast centuries of history, tradition, and prestige. Located in the Northeast, all but one of the Ivies predates the American Revolution. Harvard, for example, was established in 1636, making it the oldest institution of higher education in the United States.

The phrase "Ivy League," however, didn't appear until three centuries later. In 1933, a sports writer named Stanley Woodward wrote about the football season at the "ivy schools," and the name quickly caught on. The athletic conference officially began two decades later in 1954.

Nowadays, most people associate the term "Ivy League" with extremely competitive, renowned universities and use it as a benchmark for measuring high-quality education.

What Are the Ivy League Schools?

The Ivy League is made up of eight private schools in the Northeast. Here's an alphabetical list of the Ivy League schools, along with their respective locations, student enrollments, and acceptance rates:

School Location Undergraduate Enrollment Acceptance Rate
Brown University Providence, RI 7,160 7%
Columbia University New York, NY 8,221 5%
Cornell University Ithaca, NY 15,043 11%
Dartmouth College Hanover, NH 4,459 8%
Harvard University Cambridge, MA 10,063 5%
Princeton University Princeton, NJ 5,422 6%
University of Pennsylvania Philadelphia, PA 11,872 8%
Yale University New Haven, CT 6,092 6%

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

The Ivy League universities vary in size, with each institution enrolling anywhere between 4,500 and 15,000 undergraduates.

Dartmouth is the smallest Ivy, with a total enrollment of just about 6,600 students. Meanwhile, Columbia and Harvard enroll the most students of any Ivy, with over 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students each.

Ivy League Rankings and Reputation

The Ivy League schools consistently rank in the top 20 for national universities. This year, U.S. News & World Report ranked Princeton No. 1, Harvard No. 2, and both Columbia and Yale No. 3. The University of Pennsylvania came in at No. 6, followed by Dartmouth at No. 12, Brown at No. 14, and Cornell at No. 17.

The Ivy League schools also rank among the oldest institutions of higher education in the country. All but Cornell were founded in the colonial era.

Because of their esteemed academic reputations, Ivies boast enormous endowments in the form of donations and assets. In 2018, Harvard's endowment exceeded $39 billion, making it the largest in U.S. higher education. Yale, Princeton, Penn, and Columbia also rank in the top 10 for endowment size, with each welcoming more than $10 billion.

Ivies boast enormous billion-dollar endowments in the form of donations and assets each year.

Colleges use endowments to build new facilities, hire prestigious faculty members, and support students through grants and scholarships.

The benefits of attending an Ivy League institution continue well after graduation, as the Ivies enjoy strong alumni networks. At Princeton, for example, the first president of the Alumni Association was former U.S. President James Madison, who graduated in 1771.

Current Ivy League alumni include Jeff Bezos, Michelle and Barack Obama, and dozens of Nobel laureates.

A bronze statue of a woman with her left arm outstretched sits in front of Columbia University's Low Library.

Ivy League Acceptance Rate and Admissions

Gaining admission to an Ivy League school isn't easy. In 2020, five Ivy League schools admitted less than 7% of applicants. Harvard — the most selective Ivy League school — admitted just 4.9% of its more than 40,000 applicants for the class of 2024.

The cost of an Ivy League education exceeds $50,000 in tuition and fees at every school. Harvard, which charges around $52,000 per year, represents the most affordable option, while Columbia's tuition and fees stand at nearly $62,000 per year.

Fortunately, the Ivies provide extensive financial aid packages to students, mainly thanks to their large endowments. At Brown, Columbia, and Cornell, students whose families make under $60,000 a year receive free tuition.

Despite being incredibly expensive, Ivy League schools offer some of the most generous financial aid packages to undergraduates.

The same applies at Harvard and Yale for family incomes below $65,000 and $75,000, respectively, and at Dartmouth for family incomes below $100,000. Princeton offers free tuition to anyone with a family income of less than $160,000 per year.

As a result of financial aid packages, few Ivy League students pay the full listed price for tuition and fees. At Yale, for instance, the average scholarship in 2018 was $52,800.

All Ivy League schools admit students on a need-blind basis, meaning they do not consider an applicant's ability to pay during the admissions process. Nevertheless, many Ivy League students come from wealthy families. Data from The New York Times reveals that two-thirds of Yale and Harvard students hail from households in the top 20% of earnings.

How the Ivy League Compares With Other Colleges

Ivy League schools may have prestige and history, but they aren't the only great institutions of higher education in the U.S. Schools like Stanford, MIT, and the University of Chicago often outrank Ivies in terms of academics, but since they aren't in the same athletic conference, they technically aren't Ivy League schools.

Other schools, like Stanford and MIT, are just as prestigious and selective as the Ivies.

Similarly, the so-called "Little Ivies," which include Amherst College, Bowdoin College, and Wesleyan University, emphasize a liberal arts education and boast smaller undergraduate enrollments than the eight Ivy League members.

Then there are elite public institutions like UC Berkeley, the University of Michigan, UCLA, and the University of Virginia. These schools, often dubbed the "Public Ivies," offer high-quality education at public university tuition rates.

The most selective colleges in 2020 include several Ivies but also renowned institutions like Caltech, Northwestern University, Pomona College, and Duke University, which all admit less than 10% of applicants.

Is the Ivy League Still Relevant Today?

While it's true that many political and corporate leaders attended Ivy League schools as undergraduates and graduate students, an Ivy League education is far from the only route to professional advancement.

A 2017 study found that just 10% of senior executives in the public and private sectors attended an Ivy League school. So while an Ivy League education can certainly help, it doesn't guarantee career success.

The Ivy League includes some of the most prestigious colleges in the country, but dozens of other schools offer similarly rigorous academic programs, strong traditions, and extensive alumni networks. Although attending an Ivy can provide many benefits, such a school might not necessarily be the best fit for every student.

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