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 it. Before moving on, let's make sure all readers are aware of the eight Institutions that constitute the Ivy League -

The 8 Ivy League Institutions

  • Brown University
  • Cornell University
  • Columbia University
  • Dartmouth College
  • Harvard University
  • Princeton University
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • Yale University

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

Why do they call it an Ivy League?

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. Legend has it that the name stems from a ceremony where Ivies (creepers) that 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.​ The precise origin story about how the ‘Ivy League’ was named is unknown but one can broadly conclude​ that the league was formed for athletic competition between 8 institutions established in the 17th-19th centuries.

The History of the Ivy League

Now that the history lesson is complete, we seem to have concluded rather quickly - The Ivy League is all about sport. So we can assume that they aren't the finest centres of learning. Well, not quite. The Ivy League schools are viewed as some of the most brilliant and most prestigious centres for education 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 these questions aren't simple. For instance, let's take the case of Stanford University. Is it an Ivy League school - No! Is it as good? Better than most of the Ivies for a lot of courses. So where lies the elusive answer? Well, it depends and you will have to read on.

The truth about Liberal Arts at an Ivy League School

If one is looking for undergraduate education with a potential career in the liberal arts: Literature, Philosophy, Social Science -- then the great eight would undoubtedly be hard to beat. All of these institutes would be among any top 10 list. Moving on subjects like 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.

The Truth about Engineering at an Ivy League School

Let's get to the business end now and a career that all Indian readers would have some sort of an interest in - Engineering. The general impression among Indian students and parents mostly leads 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 most excellent schools you can get admissions in. But, would you pick Harvard over Carnegie Mellon for computer science? You shouldn't if you're smart! It further justifies the "it depends" answer. How about us old school Electrical, Mechanical and Production Engineers, surely a person who has done some 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 significant 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? 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 life. It depends on whether you like the curriculum at the university. Well honestly, it also depends on what kind of jobs you are looking for that are of genuine interest to you post University life. In​ the end, it depends on you. Going for these universities or dismissing them without prior research would be a significant folly on your part.

The truth about the aura of an Ivy League School

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 only as excellent 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 evaluate every one of them, individually and objectively. As for the casual reader who may ask this writer "So what is it about the Ivy League schools that makes them truly special?", here’s my answer. 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 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 old high schools have stood the test of time and are still churning out leaders of the modern world.