By Megan Driscoll
An Elite Tradition
The term 'Ivy League' was coined in the 1930s by college sportswriters to refer to eight of the oldest colleges in the Northeastern United States: Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University and Yale University. And while today the term 'Ivy League' is synonymous with 'prestigious education,' it actually doesn't refer to academics at all - the Ivy League is an athletic conference.
Although the origin of the Ivy League, also known as the 'Ancient Eight,' is from sports, the term 'Ivy' quickly became synonymous with 'elite.' In his history of American snobbery, author Joseph Epstein dates references to Ivy students as a socially elite class all the way back to 1935.
In fact, these mixed associations with the phrase 'Ivy League' exist to this day. The Ivies' long-standing reputation for academic excellence remains, but so does their reputation for social elitism. Many people have come to see these colleges and universities as finishing schools for America's wealthiest students, believing that the institutions don't necessarily offer a better education than other top schools.
The New Ivies
These days, the Ivy League colleges are just a handful among the growing list of top-quality academic institutions. In response, more and more publications have started promoting the idea of a 'new Ivy League.'
These lists are inspired by many changes in the academic environment. As more schools have flourished, so has educational quality - there are many more than eight excellent American institutions today. And along with the increase in quality has come an increase in competitive admissions, which tends to further cement the reputation of a top school: The harder it is to get into a school, the more desirable the institution appears. Finally, students and their families are starting to reject the idea that a socially elite school is inherently better.
Newsweek first popularized the idea of the 'New Ivies' in 2006 with its list of 25 emerging top colleges and universities. The magazine based its selection criteria on admissions statistics and interviews with students, faculty, administrators and alumni. The original Ivies were excluded from the list, as were other traditionally elite colleges and universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Amherst College.
The Newsweek top 25, which was not internally ranked, included such institutions as Carnegie Mellon University, Pomona College, New York University, the University of North Carolina, Reed College, Tufts University and Vanderbilt University.
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The Students' Ivies
A few years after Newsweek released its list, college site Unigo.com seized on the idea of a new Ivy League, but with a twist. The website based its ratings on a survey of over 30,000 actual college students. The concept is simple: Who knows America's colleges and universities better than their students? And when you survey enough students, a picture starts to emerge of the institutions that truly offer the best overall quality of education.
Unigo's 2010 list of 'New Ivies,' which is not internally ranked, includes:
- Carnegie Mellon University
- Duke University
- Johns Hopkins University
- New York University
- Northwestern University
- Tufts University
- University of Virginia
- Washington University in St. Louis
- Wellesley College
- Williams College
It's clear that these institutions are beloved by their students. One freshman at Tufts University wrote, 'Tufts is a rising star when it comes to universities, and our degree will mean a lot more as the years go by, because Tufts is getting more and more renowned.' But is a solid student reputation actually enough to overcome the prestige of the traditional Ivy League?
Old School Prestige
Plenty of non-Ivies top popular ranking lists from publications like U.S. News & World Report and a degree from an Ivy League institution certainly isn't necessary for 'normal' levels of academic or professional success. Yet the pedigree offered by the old Ivies continues to be key to reaching the top echelons of American society. For example, every single current justice on the American Supreme Court attended law school at either Harvard or Yale.
There are many different reasons that the old Ivies retain their elite status. While other schools may be improving in academic quality, the Ivies aren't necessarily getting worse. And prestige tends to be self-perpetuating - because the connections made at these institutions are often key to high-level success, very successful people tend to come from these schools. This promotes the perception that an Ivy League degree is a golden ticket. The logic is circular, but unavoidable.
Furthermore, the New Ivies aren't really a cohesive group. Neither Newsweek nor Unigo.com has the authority to designate a new league, and the nature of the New Ivy lists is inherently fluid: They're designed to be responsive to changes in academic quality, not long standing traditions.
So will a class of New Ivies ever emerge to replace the traditional Ivy League? Probably not. But the shine of the Ancient Eight may continue to fade until the distinction becomes an archaic relic of 20th century traditions.
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