Shot from below of wrought-iron gate reading 1997 at Harvard University

A Look Inside the Prestige: What Makes Ivy League Colleges So Special?

What exactly is the "Ivy League," and what makes these schools so special? Learn all about these institutions and everything they have to offer here!

When talking about higher education in the United States, it often feels like there are colleges and universities—and then there’s the Ivy League. These eight universities are among the oldest, most prestigious, and most selective of all higher education institutions in the United States (if not the world). But what actually makes the Ivy League schools so special? Let's discuss!

What exactly is the "Ivy League"?

The “Ivy League” collegiate athletic conference (NCAA Division I) was actually officially established in 1954. It comprises these eight powerhouse universities, all located in the northeastern United States. However, the term “Ivy League” dates back farther than that, though its exact origins are still debated. The Ivy League consists of: 

What makes the Ivy League so special?

Over the years, the Ivy League came to describe these schools beyond their athletic conference, and today it speaks to the schools' reputations of academic excellence, highly selective admission process, and enviable career opportunities for students. And those impressive reputations are well founded. These institutions are home to some of the most cutting-edge facilities in the world, their faculty members are leaders in their fields, and their alumni are highly accomplished as well.

Financial aid opportunities

You might also be surprised to learn that Ivy League schools provide some of the most generous financial packages out there. In fact, every single one of these schools meets 100% of admitted students demonstrated need (and they all practice “need-blind” admission). This generally means that if you are accepted to one of these schools, you can afford to go, making an Ivy League education surprisingly accessible—even for students coming from the poorest families.

Networking opportunities

The impact of attending an Ivy League school lasts long after graduation. Because of the substantial social and political clout associated with attending these schools, students may find that having an Ivy League university on their résumé opens doors to impressive jobs, internships, research positions, and more. 

What schools are in the Ivy League?

Below, you’ll find a bit more information about each of these eight schools. Please note: The annual tuition amounts do not include fees, room, and board. 

Brown University

Location: Providence, Rhode Island
Founded: 1764
Annual tuition: $65,656 (2023–2024)
Fun facts: 

  • Brown does not offer core requirement classes; rather, students are responsible for designing their own programs of study.
  • Brown was the first Ivy League school to accept students from all religious affiliations.
  • The University's Engineering program is the oldest out of all of the Ivy League schools.

Connect with Brown University!

Columbia University

Location: New York, New York
Founded: 1754
Annual tuition: $65,524 (2022–2023)
Fun facts: 

  • Scenes for the original Ghostbusters were filmed in Columbia's library.
  • Columbia's renowned Journalism school was started in 1912 at the bequest of newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer.
  • Some famous alumni include actors James Franco, Julia Stiles, and Jake Gyllenhaal as well as Barack Obama and Chelsea Clinton.

Connect with Columbia University!

Cornell University

Location: Ithaca, New York
Founded: 1865
Annual tuition: $64,204 (2023–2024)
Fun facts:

  • The University is the largest Ivy League school when it comes to the student body, with over 20,000 undergraduate and graduate students enrolled.
  • Dragon Day is an annual campus tradition celebrated in March. First-year architecture students build a giant dragon, which is shown off across campus…then set on fire.
  • Alumni include TV host/comedian Bill Maher, actress Jane Lynch from Glee, Keith Olbermann, and scientist and TV personality Bill Nye (“The Science Guy”).

Dartmouth College

Location: Hanover, New Hampshire
Founded: 1769
Annual tuition: $77,890 (2023–2024)
Fun facts:

  • Dartmouth has a number of annual campus traditions, including the Polar Bear Swim, where students jump into Occom Pond during the annual Winter Carnival.
  • The movie Animal House was written by a Dartmouth alumnus based on his experiences at one of the College's frat houses.
  • Notable alumni include actress/writer Mindy Kaling, actress/comedian Aisha Tyler, Academy Award–winning actress Meryl Streep, TV writer/producer Shonda Rimes (creator of Grey's Anatomy), and Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss.

Harvard University

Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts
Founded: 1636
Annual tuition: $57,246 (2023–2024)
Fun facts:

  • Harvard has seen a staggering 160+ Nobel Laureates pass through its halls as students, faculty, and researchers. 
  • Harvard has a fierce sports rivalry with Yale.
  • Graduates' starting salaries average around $60,000.

Related: How to Help Students Explore Ivy League Alternatives

Princeton University

Location: Princeton, New Jersey
Founded: 1746
Annual tuition: $59,710 (2023–2024)
Fun facts:       

  • American minorities make up more than 43% of Princeton's student body.
  • A number of movies were filmed on Princeton's campus, including A Beautiful Mind, Transformers, Admission, and IQ.
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote The Great Gatsby, attended Princeton, and his college years inspired much of his work.

Connect with Princeton University!

University of Pennsylvania

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Founded: 1740
Annual tuition: $58,620 (2023–2024)
Fun facts:

  • The University was founded by Benjamin Franklin.
  • The Wharton School at Penn is the nation's first collegiate business school.
  • Penn ranks #1 among the Ivy League schools in the number of students studying abroad.

Yale University

Location: New Haven, Connecticut
Founded: 1701
Annual tuition: $64,600 (2023–2024)
Fun facts:

  • Yale is the third-oldest university in the United States.
  • More than half of Yale students attended a public high school.
  • Yale boasts a nearly unheard-of 99% freshman-to-sophomore retention rate, meaning almost all the students who attend Yale for their freshman year return for sophomore year.

Related: Want an Ivy League Degree? Consider Community College First

Beyond the Ivy League

Even though the Ivy League comprises incredible institutions that afford many special opportunities and privileges, it’s important to note that they're not the definitive list of the best colleges. Other institutions offer similar—even superior—facilities, professors, opportunities, and more. 

Private schools such as Stanford University, University of Chicago, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology frequently go toe-to-toe with the Ivy League on “best college” lists. In terms of mind-bogglingly low acceptance rates, schools like the Juilliard School and the Curtis Institute of Music have most Ivy League universities beat. And a whole list of comparable state schools—aka the “Public Ivies” giving the “old” Ivies a run for their money.

Connect with Stanford University! Connect with the University of Chicago! 

It’s important to note too that a college’s prestige can also have little to no bearing on students’ future outcomes, from their career opportunities to overall happiness. Great leaders, thinkers, artists, activists, and athletes come from all walks of life—and all kinds of colleges and universities. Your college doesn’t make you successful; only you can do that.

Are you hoping to attend an Ivy League school? Read 4 Myths About the Ivy League and Selective Colleges

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