What Makes a School Ivy League?

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Ivy League—sounds important, but what does it really mean? What makes a school ivy league? How did the distinction come about? Are Ivy League schools better than other schools?

We break down what it means to be Ivy League and discuss the benefits and disadvantages of attending one of these prestigious schools.

 

The 8 Ivy League Schools

There are eight Ivy League schools in the United States. Of those 8 schools, 7 of them have corresponding medical schools, with the exception of Princeton University.

  1. Brown University
  2. Columbia University
  3. Cornell University
  4. Dartmouth College
  5. Harvard University
  6. Princeton University
  7. University of Pennsylvania
  8. Yale University

 

What Makes a School Ivy League?

Front of schools - What are the ivy league schools

The Ivy League includes some of the most prestigious, selective, and highest-ranked colleges in the world. Known for extremely competitive admissions, the schools boast many famous and successful alumni. For example, every US president since the 1980s earned an Ivy League degree.

Because of their strong alumni networks, the Ivy League schools are well endowed and offer quality resources and education, including small class sizes, access to new technology, low student to faculty ratio, and renowned faculty. While they are also known for high tuition costs, many are able to offer generous financial aid packages.

Ivy League schools are also some of the oldest in the US, steeped in centuries of history and tradition. All but one of the 8 Ivy League schools was founded before the American Revolution. Harvard University was established in 1636, making it the oldest institution of higher education in the US. Yale became the third-oldest in 1701, followed by Penn in 1740, Princeton in 1746, Columbia in 1754, Brown in 1764, and Dartmouth in 1769. Finally, Cornell was founded almost a century later, in 1865.

While the Ivy League schools were all founded at different times, they became part of the Ivy League all at once. In the 1930s, the Associated Press published an article about a potential new athletic conference featuring several small private colleges in the northeast, calling them the “ivy schools.” The term ivy likely referred to a tradition at many colleges in the area in which students would plant ivy at various buildings on campus.

Two decades later, in 1954, the Ivy League became an official member of the National College Athletic Association. The 8 colleges agreed that the Ivy League would differ from other conferences by not offering any athletic scholarships. Instead, students must gain entrance through their performance as scholars. This continues to the present day; however, student athletes may be recruited, and many students receive financial aid in some form.

 

Where Are the Ivy League Schools Located?

All the Ivy League schools are small, private colleges located in the northeastern US. The colleges were all founded very early in the history of the US (7 of the 8 schools were founded between 1636 and 1769). At this time, colonies were beginning to settle in the northeast. Expansion to the west didn’t begin until the 1800s.

There is no official reason why these schools joined a league together in 1954, though some speculate it’s because they are similar in size, prestige, and location.

Ivy League school locations, from north to south:

  • Dartmouth College: Hanover, New Hampshire
  • Harvard University: Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • Cornell University: Ithaca, New York
  • Brown University: Providence, Rhode Island
  • Yale University: New Haven, Connecticut
  • Columbia University: New York, New York
  • Princeton University: Princeton, New Jersey
  • University of Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Ivy League School location map

 

Can More Schools Become Ivy League?

The Ivy League still consists of the original 8 schools that founded the League in 1954. Because of the recognition and prestige they enjoy, they are unlikely to admit other institutions into the League.

Since the Ivy League is technically an athletic conference, it’s theoretically possible for other schools to join and compete with these eight schools. However, only the League can decide whether that will become a reality.

 

What Schools Are Mistaken for Ivy Leagues?

Ivy League schools may be synonymous with prestige and history, but they aren’t the only renowned universities in the US. Many schools are mistaken for Ivy League when they’re actually not affiliated at all.

These schools have been named “Ivy Plus” schools and include Stanford University, Duke University, Northwestern University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Chicago, John Hopkins University, and Georgetown University, among others.

Another league of similar prestige is the “Little Ivies,” made up of colleges and universities that are known for a high level of academic rigor and selectiveness; however, these schools offer a liberal arts education and have a smaller student body. Some of these schools include Amherst College, Bowdoin College, and Wesleyan University.

“Public Ivies” are prestigious public universities that offer a collegiate experience similar to Ivy League schools. They include the University of California Berkeley, the University of Michigan, the University of California Los Angeles, and the University of Virginia, among others. These universities are often much larger, at 20,000-40,000 students, and offer quality education at much lower tuition rates.

 

Are Ivy League Schools Worth the Hype?

The primary draw of Ivy League schools is the high standard of academic rigor. These schools offer small class sizes with extremely qualified faculty, including, in some cases, winners of Pulitzers and Nobel Prizes. Unlike large public universities where faculty face research and publishing pressures, faculty at Ivy League schools are often focused on teaching and are able to give more attention to their students.

In addition to academic rigor, Ivy League schools are often equipped with the best facilities and resources due to their large endowments in the form of donations from successful alumni and other assets. These endowments mean that Ivy League schools can offer generous financial aid packages to students of qualified families. No Ivy League school considers an applicant’s ability to pay tuition as a factor affecting admission, and many offer free tuition to applicants whose families have incomes below a certain threshold.

Alumni from Ivy League schools include famous and successful names, such as Michelle and Barack Obama, Warren Buffet, Noam Chomsky, Jeff Bezos, and many Nobel Laureates. As a result, students benefit from strong alumni networks that provide access to a variety of opportunities, internships, and careers. Networks aside, in some cases, having an Ivy League school on one’s resume can provide an advantage in the job market.

While most Ivy League schools offer comprehensive financial aid packages to those who qualify, there are still students who pay the full price. Tuition, plus room and board, can total upwards of $80,000 per year. As a result, a large portion of the student body is made up of students from wealthy families that don’t represent the diverse socioeconomic makeup of the United States as a whole.

While many Ivy League schools have taken strong measures to improve the socioeconomic and racial diversity of their student body, they still have a long way to go. Many schools have been criticized for lackluster support for students of color.

While there are many benefits to attending an Ivy League school, the reality is an excellent education is available at many different schools, often at a fraction of the cost.

What’s most important is ensuring school fit. Do you feel comfortable on campus? Do you get along with the other students? Do you like the city where the school is located, and can you see yourself living there for four or more years?

 

Is It More Difficult to Get Into an Ivy League School?

Ivy League colleges are notorious for admitting very few of their many applicants. The applications were no different for the class of 2026, which had a record high number of applicants overall at 375,000 and a record low acceptance rate, which averaged 4.9% across the eight schools.

Some have speculated that the record high applicants and record low acceptance rates for the class of 2026 may be due to COVID-19. Many applicants who would have applied as part of the class of 2024 may have waited to apply a year or two later when they would be able to attend college classes as normal.

While all Ivy League schools are difficult to get into, some schools are slightly more difficult to get into than others. Harvard University had the lowest acceptance rate for the class of 2026 at 3.29% of applicants. This was followed by Columbia University at 3.73%, Yale University at 4.46%, Brown University at 5%, and Dartmouth at 6.24%

Several Ivy League Schools did not release acceptance rates this year, as well as in recent years. Princeton, for example, did not release acceptance rates in an effort to relieve some of the anxiety that low acceptance rates cause prospective students and their families, which may discourage some from applying. Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania also did not release acceptance rates for the class of 2026.

While Ivy League schools are difficult to get into, some non-Ivy League schools are just as difficult or more difficult. For example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology accepted only 3.9% of applicants for the class of 2026. Stanford, along with Princeton, Cornell, and the University of Pennsylvania, did not release its acceptance for the class of 2026, but for the class of 2025, the acceptance rate was 3.95%.

 

Ivy League Medical Schools

Seven of the eight Ivy League schools have corresponding medical schools, with the exception of Princeton University. These medical schools are sought-after institutions with excellent medical programs, but we recommend all medical school applicants prioritize school fit rather than prestige alone.

There are several factors to consider, including how you prefer to learn, your special interests, how you feel in the city, cost of living, tuition costs, financial aid opportunities, and your gut feeling.

Learn more in our guide: How to Decide Which Schools to Apply to (12 Important Factors).

 

Choose the Ideal Path for You

If you need help making decisions about which schools to apply to or how to create a solid plan for acceptance, speak to one of our one-on-one advisors. Our doctor-led team will help you make the decisions that will lead to medical school acceptance at your first choice schools.

Whether you’re applying to college, medical school, or residency, follow the Med School Insiders blog for our latest guides, how-to articles, and industry trends. To receive relevant articles, videos, and lifestyle advice straight to your inbox, sign up for our weekly newsletter.

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