The Glossary: Ivy

So many of our conversations about college admissions include the word "ivy." Ivy League, The Ivies, West Coast Ivies, Southern Ivies, Hidden Ivies, Public Ivies, Ivy Style. What's so special about ivy?

Let's begin with the literal. The Ivy League is a college athletics conference, like the Big 12 or the A.C.C. It consists of eight schools: Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard College, The University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, and Yale University. Technically, those schools are the only "Ivies." The league was first officially formed in 1954, although the idea of forming some kind of athletic union of the "ivy colleges" goes back to the 1930s. So the Ivy nickname goes back farther than the Ivy League.

Where does the ivy nickname come from? From the literal ivy growing on the walls of the buildings. Even before the Ivy League, ivy connoted old-world tradition and grandeur: ivy-covered walls are common on old buildings in England and Europe. Plus, it just takes a lot of time to get the ivy growing up your building. So ivy was, literally and figuratively, a way to differentiate old-school from up-and-comer. Sound snooty? It was meant to. For a non-collegiate example of ivy representing tradition and elitism, look at the outfield wall of Wrigley Field in Chicago.

So what makes the Ivy League schools so special? A few things. One is that they're old, so they've had a lot more time than many universities to differentiate themselves. Harvard is the oldest college in the U.S., founded in 1636. Cornell is the young one of the league, founded in 1865. The other six were all founded in the 18th century.

Another thing is that, from the beginning, they were meant to educate elite professionals: clergy, businessmen, professors, diplomats, politicians, and the like. In 2017, three of the top ten schools for getting a Wall Street career were Ivy League schools. To a large extent, that's still what we mean when we use "ivy" to describe a college, even if it's not in the Ivy League. It's a place where you go to get a great education that will lead to a prestigious career. It's not a place where you go for mere job training or "just to get the piece of paper." There are plenty of schools that have this high-minded goal that aren't called Ivy, formally or informally (looking at you, Colleges that Change Lives), but that's what we mean when we do decide to describe a school as "ivy."

So these schools have been around a lot longer than most, and have for generations--for centuries in most cases--catered to a wealthy elite and existed to keep the elite wealthy. That means they have plenty of money to expand their programs, hire great professors, and keep their schools looking good. And then, of course, all this builds on itself. Because you get a good education, make a decent living, and give money back to the school, they have more money to attract good students and professors to keep the cycle going. For the past few decades the Ivy League and similar schools have been trying to keep the idea of Elite without the negative connotation of Elitist. They've had mixed success. 

The Ivy League schools, and any other we might describe as an Ivy, are also selective. But really, that's just another example of success building on itself. A school gets more applications than it can take, so it turns down a bunch of them. That becomes news, which makes even more people want to apply the next year, which means they turn away even more. Once a school gets to the point that it is selective enough that the selectivity itself becomes the reason people think it's a "good school," then the selectivity will only grow. Ironically, one way for a university to make itself more desirable to strong students is to start denying acceptance to some strong students. And Yale and Princeton have been able to turn away strong students for more than 100 years.

To be fair, there's no denying that Ivy League schools are objectively good schools. They have really high graduation rates, prize-winning professors, and great facilities. By any measure they're good universities to attend, but that doesn't mean that all of them are a good place for you. In a few months we'll get the news about some student who got accepted to all eight Ivy League schools, and that student--or students--will be celebrated. But it's hard to imagine that all eight schools are really a good match. Just in the eight actual Ivy schools, you have one in a pretty rural place--Dartmouth in Hanover, New Hampshire--and one--Columbia--in the middle of Manhattan. Penn is almost twice the size of Princeton, and Cornell is three times the size of Dartmouth. 

[Personal aside: when I got married in 2001, my wife and I sent wedding invitations to all the living Presidents of the United States, just to see what would happen. Yes, we got responses from all of them, and George H. W. Bush's letter was especially nice. No, none of the presidents came. I suspect many people apply to all of the Ivies for the same basic reason: why not?]

So what about the ivies that aren't actual Ivies? You'll hear terms like West Coast Ivies, Southern Ivies, Hidden Ivies, and Public Ivies. Those aren't official or agreed-upon designations in any way, and the schools themselves tend to shy away from that terminology. Stanford doesn't want you to go there because it's kind of like Yale, they want you to go there because it's Stanford. Interestingly, using Ivy as shorthand for any high-quality and selective university works the same way (and happened around the same time) that Cadillac became shorthand for quality. Just as we might call something "the Cadillac of..." to mean it's the best, we use "The Ivy of..." to mean it's the best. But just as we've let go of Cadillac as the most luxurious of luxury cars, we can let go of the Ivy League as the definition of a good university.

What's the difference between an Ivy League school and a similar non-ivy? Let's compare Williams College to Harvard College. Williams is also old, founded in 1793, and in Massachusetts. Both are in the top 25 of Money Magazine's best colleges for your money. U.S. News ranks Williams the #1 National Liberal Arts college and #1 Best Value school. It ranks Harvard #2 in Best Value and #2 in the overall National rankings. If you live on campus, both will cost you about $70,000 total per year (before financial aid). Williams has a 97% graduation rate and a 7-1 student-faculty ration. Harvard has a 97% graduation rate and a 6-1 student-faculty ratio. Williams has an SAT midrange of 1400-1560, Harvard's is 1490-1600.

These are both incredible, but comparable, schools. But Harvard is the more well-known school, becasue it's an Ivy. Last year Harvard had 39,506 regular applications and admitted 1,687: 23.4 applicants for each seat. But Williams, also considered a "most selective" school, had 6,985 regular applicants for 553 enrolled: 12.6 applications for each seat. What's the difference between an Ivy and a similar non-ivy? About twice as many applications. 

Here's what I recommend for students applying to Ivy League schools or any other elite college sometimes referred to some sort of Ivy-ness:

Don't be afraid to apply. If you're a good high school student who thinks that one of these schools is a good match, then go for it. It's not likely you'll be accepted, but that's because there are too many applicants, not because you're not a good student. All the seniors they accept are strong candidates, but so are most of the people they don't accept. Also, because of their large endowments (also knows as piles of money), you're more likely to have your financial need met by one of these schools than many others. If you're a low-income student, Yale or Harvard is probably as affordable as your state's big university.

Don't mention the word Ivy. If you go to an actual Ivy League school, let that stand for itself. If you go to a high-quality, hard-to-get-into school that isn't an ivy, let that stand for itself. If you go to a school that isn't considered "elite" but is the best match for you, let that stand for itself. If you need the word Ivy associated with your school to be happy, you're overly concerned with branding and not concerned enough with thinking of your own well-being. I've had students go on to Ivy League schools and be happy and successful, but I've had many many more students go to non-famous schools and end up just as happy and successful.

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Photo by Goettingen / Getty Images

Photo by Goettingen / Getty Images