What Is The Ivy League And Why Are They Called That?


What is the Ivy League social image

Ever wonder which schools are considered “Ivy League”, and where the term came from?

Ivy League schools are an elite group of eight private universities based in the northeastern U.S., best characterized by their historical campuses, rigorous academic programs, and strong alumni networks.


From explaining the term “Ivy League” to discussing the current global influence of this network of schools, we’ll walk you through the history of Ivy Leagues over time, including how they’ve impacted higher education and how relevant they are in the current age of expanding access to college.

Historically Known Ivy League Schools

As mentioned, the Ivy League includes eight private universities, each with a unique history and reputation. Known for their rigorous academic programs, historic campuses, and influential alumni, they were bound together due to their common pursuits of academics and athletics.

The Ivy League includes:

  • Brown University: Founded in 1764 and located in Providence, RI.
  • Columbia University: Founded in 1754 and located in New York City, NY.
  • Cornell University: Founded in 1865 and located in Ithaca, NY.
  • Dartmouth College: Founded in 1769 and located in Hanover, NH.
  • Harvard University: Founded in 1636 and located in Cambridge, MA.
  • Princeton University: Founded in 1746 and located in Princeton, NJ.
  • University of Pennsylvania: Founded in 1740 and located in Philadelphia, PA.
  • Yale University: Founded in 1701 and located in New Haven, CT.

Origins Of The Phrase “Ivy League”

The term “Ivy League” is rooted in both athletics and tradition, having been first used in the 1930s by a sports journalist. However, the schools themselves date back several hundred years, leading to an alternate theory that the term “Ivy League” refers to the plants traditionally grown on the buildings of these campuses.

The true meaning of the term is, in fact, a combination of the two. The journalist, Stanley Woodward, was annoyed by having to cover a football game between two schools, neither of which were his alma mater, and referred to the schools as “ivy-covered.” From then on, the term became synonymous with older universities.

A New Athletic Conference

The Ivy League was officially established in 1954 via the Ivy Group Agreement. This agreement bound the presidents of the eight universities to a shared vision of strengthening and balancing athletics with academics. 


Essentially, the goal was to ensure that sports did not overshadow academics, while still promoting athletic excellence. The Ivy Leagues have a long history of athletic competition, which played an important role in shaping the identity of each school. In fact, this dual emphasis is a defining characteristic of Ivy League schools and continues to distinguish them from other collegiate athletic conferences.

Finding Cultural Significance

How has the term “Ivy League” come to symbolize academic excellence and elite status today? Some might say that the ivy-covered buildings adorning these campuses represent not only the physical aesthetic and historical richness of these schools, but also their long-lasting commitment to academic excellence.

The picture this paints evokes a sense of tradition, stability, and prestige that has been cultivated over several hundreds of years. Still, the cultural impact of the Ivy League extends far beyond that. Simply put, these institutions are commonly thought of as the gatekeepers of elite education, setting the benchmark for success both academically and professionally. And, despite much criticism, they continue to attract students from around the globe.

Relevance Of The Ivy League Today

Ivy League universities consistently rank among the top academic institutions globally. Why? Their dedication to high-quality education and cutting-edge research, supported by billions of dollars of school endowments, gives students unparalleled access to advanced resources and opportunities.

Impact On Higher Education

Ivy League schools typically impact on the world of higher education by setting trends and establishing standards that other universities soon follow. These schools have implemented innovative teaching methods, curricula, and research initiatives that often influence the educational policies and practices of other universities worldwide.

For example, Harvard’s business school is a pioneer in conducting case studies with an interdisciplinary approach. Furthermore, the Ivy League’s shift to evaluating prospective students based on a holistic admissions process – considering extracurricular performance, leadership, and personal qualities in addition to academic performance – is used at almost every academic institution today.

These schools also tend to play a critical role in advocating for issues in higher education. Most recently, Brown launched the Criminal Justice Initiative to address critical social justice issues and influence broader societal change. Likewise, Princeton created its Sustainability Action Plan in hopes of setting an example for other universities wanting to fight climate change.

Through their thoughtful research and leadership, the Ivy Leagues contribute to national and international discussions on education reform and access to higher education. Given their status and influence, their advocacy often helps shape educational policies that affect millions of students across the globe.

Opportunities & Influence

As mentioned, the influence of the Ivy Leagues stretches well beyond the borders of the U.S. These schools maintain global networks and partnerships with other leading institutions to facilitate academic and research opportunities for their students and faculty, alike.

The history and reach of these universities help them attract top students, professors, and researchers from around the world. In return, students and faculty have access to an array of opportunities including working on international projects and participating in study abroad programs.

Finally, due to the influential alumni networks in place at these schools, graduates often receive top-tier internships and job placements regardless of the industry. These networks can provide students with invaluable mentorship and opportunities to propel their careers.

The New Ivies

Amidst a conversation of the traditional Ivy Leagues, I’d be remiss not to mention the “New Ivies.” This is a group of U.S. colleges that offers an academic experience comparable to those of the traditional Ivy Leagues. That said, the New Ivies have gained recognition for their academic excellence, competitive admissions process, and network of successful alumni, often ranking even with the Ivy Leagues in certain areas.

The New Ivies include:

  • California Institute of Technology: Founded in 1891 and located in Pasadena, CA.
  • Duke University: Founded in 1838 and located in Durham, NC.
  • Emory University: Founded in 1836 and located in Atlanta, GA.
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Founded in 1861 and located in Cambridge, MA.
  • Northwestern University: Founded in 1851 and located in Evanston, IL.
  • Rice University: Founded in 1912 and located in Houston, TX.
  • Stanford University: Founded in 1885 and located in Stanford, CA.
  • University of Chicago: Founded in 1890 and located in Chicago, IL.
  • Vanderbilt University: Founded in 1873 and located in Nashville, TN.
  • Washington University: Founded in 1853 and located in St. Louis, MO.

The two main differences between this list and the previous one are that it’s slightly longer (10 total schools instead of eight) and the schools are more culturally and geographically diverse. 

Broadening Access To Elite Education

Like the traditional Ivy Leagues, the New Ivies are highly competitive, employ distinguished faculty, and attract students from around the world. However, recognizing a new list of top-tier schools broadens access to education at the highest degree and provides more options for prospective students.

Just the concept of the “New Ivies” reflects an evolving landscape of higher education in the U.S. These institutions share many qualities of the traditional Ivy Leagues that are highly sought after. Yet, prospective students can now appreciate a broader array of opportunities to carve their own path to personal, academic, and professional success.

Tying It Together

Known for their rigorous academics, historic campuses, and influential alumni networks, the Ivy League and its “New Ivy” comrades are often considered the pinnacle of higher education in the U.S. 

From their origins as an athletic conference to their current status of academic and social prestige, the Ivy Leagues continue to set the standards for excellence. Equally, the New Ivies have emerged as research and academic powerhouses, expanding and reshaping the landscape of higher education.

For a prospective student dreaming of attending on of these esteemed schools, knowing the history, influence, and current relevance of the Ivy Leagues is crucial to mapping out your academic and professional endeavors. Any one of these schools will provide a unique opportunity for intellectual growth, professional development, and personal transformation. You can look forward to joining a legacy of excellence and endeavoring on a journey filled with new opportunities!

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