The Truth About the IVY League!

posted at March 10, 2019, 4:32 p.m.


What is the Ivy League? Are Ivy league universities the best? Are Ivy Leagues good for engineering? Masters at an Ivy League? Or the worst assumption of them all from the ill-informed- Ivy League is a sports league right? So academics may not be the priority!

These are questions, which are on every student’s mind as she/he thinks about applying to universities abroad.

One can’t be blamed for having these doubts though. Despite the world becoming smaller every day, America is still a faraway and alien land for most. The concept of the Ivy League is something that only very few in India have a clear idea about. Before moving on, lets make sure all readers are aware of the 8 Institutions that constitute the Ivy League -

• Brown

• Cornell

• Columbia

• Dartmouth

• Harvard

• Princeton

• The University of Pennsylvania

• Yale.

Don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard of a couple of these or if some names you are sure about aren’t in the list.

So let's get one thing straight- Yes, the Ivy League finds its origins in sport. It was formed as and still is a collegiate athletic conference. The origin of the IVY name, however, has many different stories. Some say it stems from a ceremony where Ivies (creepers) were planted on the day of the first class of the year at these universities in the 19th century. The Ivies, like most creepers, would soon become a prominent feature on the walls of these grand old universities, leading to the said nomenclature. Another story talks of 4 colleges in the mid 19th century (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Dartmouth) coming together, starting an athletic conference and naming it after the roman numeral for 4 (IV) with the others joining in later! This story is most popular among the locals in New England where a number of the 8 Ivy League schools exist. We don’t know exactly how the Ivy name about but we can broadly conclude that the league was formed for athletic competition between 8 institutions formed in the 17th-19th centuries.

Now that the history lesson is complete, we seem to have arrived at a conclusion rather quickly- The Ivy League is all about sport. So we can assume that they aren’t really the finest centers of learning….. Well, not quite. The Ivy League schools are viewed as some of the most brilliant and most prestigious centers for learning because they are just that- extremely selective institutions with some of the finest academic minds as a part of the classroom and faculty. There is no doubt that the Ivy League schools are indeed among the best. A third of all American presidents and half the American Supreme Court justices have graduated from an Ivy. However, the answers to the questions at the start of this article and many others you may have aren’t as simple as this either. For instance, let's take the case of Stanford University. Is it an Ivy League school- No! Is it as good? Definitely better than most of the Ivies. So where lies the elusive answer? Well, it depends and you will have to read on.

If one is looking for undergraduate education with a potential career in the liberal arts : Literature, Philosophy, Social Science -- then the great 8 would certainly be hard to beat. All of these institutes would be among any top 10 list. Move onto law however and Harvard is probably the best in the world with Yale close behind. Dartmouth, on the other hand, doesn’t even have law school! Do you now get a hint of where we are heading with this? Despite the temptation, it’s best NOT to view the Ivy League as a collective group beyond an undergraduate education in the liberal arts. Once that commonality ends, the Ivies are very different from each other.

Let's get to the business end now and a career which all Indian readers would have some sort of an interest in- Engineering. The general impression among Indian students and parents mostly lead to an ill-informed conclusion that the Ivies aren’t any good for engineering (A classic mistake that stems from viewing these universities as one entity.) If you are looking for a Computer Science degree, Upenn, Columbia and even Cornell are among the finest schools you can get into. But wait… would you pick Harvard over Carnegie Mellon for computer science? You shouldn’t if you’re smart! This further justifies the “it depends” answer.

How about us old school Electrical, Mechanical and Production Engineers, surely a person who has done some sort of research would know that the Ivies aren’t good at all for them. Except that it’s a wrong perception again. Yes, a large chunk of these schools aren’t great for these fields but Cornell is easily among the very best at the same time. Is it better than the University of Michigan or Georgia Tech through? It’s probably not for Mechanical Engineers. I can go on and on with an example for pretty much every course and career choice. However, even then having a perfect answer is difficult because, well, it depends. It depends on what you are looking for- in your course and in life. It depends on whether you like the curriculum at the university. It depends on whether the kinds of jobs students from a particular school get into truly interest you. In finality, it depends on you. Going for these universities or dismissing them without prior research would be a major folly on your part.

Don’t worry, I won’t end this article without a bottom line and here it is. The most important thing to consider while looking at the Ivy Leagues as a student or a parent is to look at them objectively. However hard it may be, it is best to forget the aura the term “The Ivy League” creates and view these simply as fine institutes of learning. The Ivy Leagues are just like the other universities- they have upsides just like they have downsides. You must take time to objectively evaluate every one of them, individually. As for the casual reader who may ask this writer “So what is it about the Ivy League schools that make them truly special?” These are institutions, which are a link to the past. They are institutions from which people who’ve shaped the modern world gained an education. These universities have been around since the 17th century ( Harvard was established in 1636 nearly a 120 years before India formally came under British rule and just 28 years after the first British envoy entered the Mughal court asking for permission to establish a factory!). Just let that sink in. Then you can appreciate how these great old schools have stood the test of time and are still churning out leaders of the modern world.