What Is the Ivy League?

The Ivy League consists of eight research universities, sometimes known as the Ancient Eight, that make up an athletic conference and are some of the best-known colleges in the world. Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, Penn, and Yale are each known for their storied history, academic excellence, and selectivity in admissions. The universities offer various programs in various fields, including arts and humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, engineering, business, law, medicine, and public policy. 

Ivy League Harvard Boating
Harvard Boat House on the Charles River. (Photo Cred: Lisa Heffernan)

Where does the name Ivy League come from?

The name Ivy League comes from the tradition of students planting ivy on campus as a customary class day ceremony. In 1945 the colleges established the Ivy Group Agreement, which set standards for competition among their football teams. The group became an official athletic conference in 1954 when the agreement was extended to all their intercollegiate athletics. 

Seven members are known as “Colonial Colleges” because their founding predates the American Revolution. Each of the eight Ivy League schools admits fewer than 10% of their freshmen applicants. 

All eight universities are need-blind in their admissions for US applicants, meaning that a family’s resources will not figure into an admissions decision and that the university covers 100% of a student’s demonstrated financial need. Many colleges are tuition-free for families making $100,000 or more and affordable for many low- and middle-income families. The Ivy League Colleges are among the wealthiest US universities, as measured by the endowment. 

How did each Ivy League college begin, and what distinguishes them?

Brown University, founded in 1764 as the College in the English Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, is located in Providence, Rhode Island, with an undergraduate population of 7,125 students. The University is distinguished by its open curriculum, which allows students to create their curriculum depending on their interests.

Columbia University, founded in 1754 as King’s College, is in New York City. Columbia has a total undergraduate population of 8,689 and, for over a century, has had a defining Core Curriculum that all first-year students take. 

Cornell University, founded in 1865 with its current name, is the only Ivy League college founded after the founding of the United States; it is located in Ithaca, New York. It has an undergraduate population of 15,735 and is the largest Ivy. Cornell is distinguished by its Agriculture and Life Sciences, Hotel Administration, and Industrial and Labor Relations schools.

Dartmouth College was founded in 1769 with its current name (although it was almost called Wentworth College) and is located in Hanover, New Hampshire. Dartmouth has 4,556 undergraduates and is on the quarter system rather than semesters, with the entire sophomore class sharing a summer quarter on campus.

Harvard University was founded in 1636 as New College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Harvard has 7,153 undergraduates and is one of the best-known universities in the world.

Princeton University, founded in 1746, the College of New Jersey, is located in Princeton, New Jersey. Princeton has 4,774 undergraduates, and although the college has many Ph.D. programs, it is best known for its focus on undergraduate education.

The University of Pennsylvania was founded in 1755 as the College of Philadelphia in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Penn has 10,412 undergraduates and a wealth of pre-professional programs.

Yale University, originally founded in 1701 as Collegiate School, is located in New Haven, Connecticut. Yale has 6,536 undergraduates divided into 12 residential colleges to create a more personal experience at a large university.

When people say “Ivy League Plus,” what do they mean?

Colleges that are not technically Ivy League schools, but have comparable or greater academic reputations and selectivity, are sometimes called Ivy League Plus colleges. While there is no strict definition of who these colleges are, they often include Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Duke, Northwestern University, the California Institute of Technology, and the University of Chicago, 

More Great Reading:

University of Penn Dean of Admissions: When Your Teen Doesn’t Get In

About Lisa Endlich Heffernan

Lisa (Endlich) Heffernan is the co-founder of Grown and Flown, the #1 site for parents of teens, college students and young adults, reaching millions of parents every month. Lisa is a New York Times bestselling author.
She started the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group and is co-author of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults (Flatiron Books) now in paperback.

Read more posts by Lisa

Want our FREE College Admissions Timeline?
Grab this guide to help your teen find colleges that are an academic, social, and financial fit.