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  • Gabriella Rosa Araujo

The Ivy League: an empire or a farce?


The Ivy League, as widely known, is a group of eight universities deemed some of the best in the world and the first ones to be founded in the United States. It is composed of Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and UPenn (University of Pennsylvania).

The glorious Harvard gates are revered by some to a point comparable to the adoration destined to a pop star -- a strange phenomenon, to say the least: an academic institution that provokes a reaction similar to the one sparked by individuals at the height of their fame (I stopped myself very short of writing that Harvard is Justin Bieber in the 2010s for colleges. Don’t judge me). Most high schoolers dream or at least secretly entertain the possibility of attending universities of the Ivy League, inebriated by the prestige they bring, first by being a part of that group, second for their individual names. Even the least well-known Ivy League schools, which are by consensus Cornell and Dartmouth, still carry that solemnity like very few other colleges are able to reproduce or match. An Ivy diploma opens doors, facilitates access to endless opportunities, and is, especially in the United States, a characterization that inspires immediate and intense respect for anyone who possesses it.

But why do we, as a society, attribute such a high value to the amazing but nonetheless isolated fact that a person survived four years of emotional draining and academic rigor, or even that an individual secured a spot in one of these colleges in the first place? Is all the pressure to get into these schools worth it, or are they overrated?

The glorious Harvard gates.


All of the Ivy League schools’ histories can be traced back to a time when the academic life in the United States was much less developed. The first Ivy league school was founded in 1636 -- to put that into perspective, exactly 140 years before the Declaration of Independence -- when the Massachusetts Bay Colony voted to create Harvard, also the first university in the United States. The other Ivy League schools slowly came along, with Cornell being the last school to be founded, in 1865, nearly 100 years after Dartmouth, the second youngest Ivy -- founded in 1769. Ever since, these schools have been glorified and dreamed about by students of all ages (ourselves included) to a point in which they have infiltrated even pop culture. In multiple fictional stories, some of great impact in culture and society, these schools are mentioned, usually as a symbol of wealth and wisdom. An example of that is the 1951 classic book The Catcher In The Rye, in which the main character narrates that his father wants him to go to Yale or Princeton, two of the most popular Ivies.

The Ivy League universities have gone through so many of the most important historical events in both American and global history that they have become landmarks in the educational scene and have also greatly impacted culture. As time passed, their prestige built beyond the legacy of time, and history has proven that this phenomenon probably won’t go away so soon.

Harvard University, 1638 (in a time where, evidently, photography wasn’t a thing).

Why are they so prestigious?

The extreme success of the Ivy League can only be entirely understood through a deeper look into the coalition’s extremely rich history. And the truth is, to put it simply, that they possess a near-perfect package of attributes, carefully crafted throughout the years and strengthened by a completely unnecessary conspiration of circumstances, otherwise known as a lucky strike, that make them an empire-like institution equal parts exhilarating and terrifying to think about. First of all, the Ivy League is very old, despite the coalition itself having only been formed in the 20th century, and that gives schools a significant competitive edge: they have had more time to establish a ground of solid academic traditions and to build a reputation for such. The Ivy League universities have had extra decades to establish longer academic records, to be granted more funding, and to build their academic portfolio in a time when there was not much competition as to where the top-notch academic resources were headed.

Time progressed but the situation didn’t change at the same rate, and the options of where to study kept quite limited for a while. Affluent families that could afford to educate their children -- for a long time higher education was inaccessible to the larger part of the population -- sent them to these schools, and those already influential young people eventually became politicians, businessmen, and artists, involved in the most important changes in American and global society. That gradually built up to another competitive edge for these colleges: their insane list of famous and important alumni. Ranging from countless presidents and astronauts to billionaires and Nobel prize winners in the most diverse categories, the record of these universities is impeccable, and it only adds to the prestige: the long lists of intellectual celebrities and recognized figures impress anyone and create in us, mere mortals, an easier association of person with institution, which makes it much more difficult to separate what is admiration to one and what is admiration to the other. The social consensus that education is very important in forming a person, as well as the pride universities continuously (and conveniently) show for their alumni only add to this phenomenon -- after all, in this way of thinking, it is possible to attribute at least a part of Obama’s or Trump’s honorable traits, whatever they are and wherever your beliefs lie in the political spectrum, to the places they got their education from. And guess what? They both attended Ivy Leagues.

The prestige comes from a long and gradual process in which the Ivy League schools built their imponent reputation, one that eventually started influencing society, too. It is not rare to see, especially among Americans or students at international schools like ourselves, individuals wearing accessories or clothing from the stores of the Ivy League, and even the social media presence of these schools is large, amounting to several millions of followers when combining all of them. The Ivy League schools are capable of adapting and changing according to the time, while still keeping the fog of mysteriousness mostly intact. They emphasize their influence in modern society, through the hiring of the most qualified and often most well-known professors and through the publishing of student-run newspapers openly discussing current issues, for example; but are also adamant to remind everyone of their history by placing an extremely high value on “legacy” when considering admission -- namely, the consideration of whether a student’s family attended that school while considering granting them a spot.

Hence, the strategies Ivy League schools use to maintain themselves as arguably the most important institutions of secondary education in the world come from decades of learning through circumstances and adapting to the present in a way that allows for a protection of tradition. It seems paradoxical that the innovative character of these schools helps them remain intact, but so far, it has been working extremely well -- after all, they continue to be time capsules, with their ivy-covered buildings.

Interviews with Alumni

The pressure to enter Ivy League schools is extremely high, with children preparing from concerningly young ages, and attending strict, rigid preparatory schools or boarding schools to assure that their spot will be guaranteed. However, when all of this pressure passes from acceptance and attendance, is it really that worth it? Every student's experience at an Ivy differentiates, some people really enjoy it, however some may dislike it. But, for a general point of view, we have interviewed a Columbia alumni to really know if this experience is worth it.

Firstly, the alumni answered that academically she did not struggle a lot, and that she found it easy. However, we shall keep in mind that this answer really depends on the person, and what course they take. Since somebody’s experience majoring in Literature will be different to someone's experience majoring in Astrophysics. But to keep in mind, the alumni interviewed did post grad finance.

The alumni interviewed has gone through serious job changes, from working in New York City Finance during the 2008 economic collapse, to working in mining. She now works as the director of engineering projects at an extremely good company, and attending an ivy has helped her get good titles when she worked in finance. The alumni actually mentioned something interesting when being asked if attending an ivy has helped with job offers, her answer was: ”Better recruiters tend to go to these schools so it helps in the beginning to land a good job, but after about 5 years, your own network/ abilities has more influence on your career. The network includes the people you meet at university”

It was mentioned that if attending again would be possible, she would, yet the price for the Ivy was extremely high. And when asked if the schools were overrated, she mentioned that although these are in fact good schools, their cost may be prohibitive.

Last things mentioned in this interview were that life long friends were made, and since these schools are so famous, she has made many international friends.

So summarizing this, this alumni has had a pretty good experience at her Ivy. As I have mentioned though, everybody’s experience differs from their course or to them as a person. I could use myself as an example, I am a city person, and if I would have studied at an ivy league school, it would have definitely been Columbia over Harvard, since I am in fact just meant for the city life. However this is not everybody’s case, and I have met people who said that when searching for universities, one big thing that was taken into consideration was nature.

Interviews with alumni from other prestigious universities

As previously mentioned, Ivy Leagues are not the only prestigious colleges in the world, many others are prestigious, and when talking about prestigious colleges, most aren’t ivies. I was hoping to be able to get interviews with Caltech and MIT alumni, since I know a few, however, due to procrastination, I did the interviews too late and unfortunately could not (However, if you are interested in these interviews, I can get them arranged and maybe write more articles on this subject, since I actually quite enjoy it.)

I was able to get interviews with 2 McGill alumni, a prestigious Canadian university located in Montreal. One who attended Med school, one who attended engineering school (same alumni who went to post grad Columbia, So we can compare the answers to).

First thing mentioned compared to the Ivy interview was the price. The alumnus told us that the prices paid for the schools were worth it for the education.

Another thing mentioned was that academically, McGill was tough. The same alumni from Columbia mentioned that she struggled way more academically at McGill then at Columbia. And unlike Columbia’s curriculum, McGill’s required a lot of dedication and discipline to succeed, however we shall remember that it all differentiates from course to course, and she took different courses during different years (in the late 80s-90s), and at McGill she took engineering, and so that may be a possibility on why.

One of the alumni interviewed ended up as a physicist, the other as an engineer, and in both cases, they said that attending this school did make getting their job easier. Another thing shared in both interviews was that if attending again was a possibility, they would.

Summarizing the interviews, attending McGill was worth it, however, just a reminder not everybody may feel like a prestigious university is a good fit for them, and that is alright. These schools require large amounts of effort and education, which can be draining. Things change from course to course, and everybody has different experiences, since everybody is different.

So, finally: are or are they not overrated?

First and foremost, it is important to clarify that the Ivy League have great merit and their reputation is not unfounded: they really are hubs of academic excellence, without doubt some of the best in the world, fostering a lot of the most important innovation and research in all areas of society and the sciences. There is nothing wrong in recognizing that; the problem is that there is a blinding and sometimes exaggerated focus on those schools (as if they were the only ones qualified in that manner) that creates a feeling of all-or-nothing: they are the desired outcomes, too isolated and discrepant from anything else for these other options to be seen as competitive or even just as good, depending on the situation. Some other universities, such as MIT, Stanford, and Duke, have been able to break that paradigm and be placed in the popular mind right next to the Ivies in terms of excellence; however, many others aren’t able to reach the impossible standards set by this handful of universities.

But, perhaps more intensely, the reputation of the Ivy League affects high schoolers. The cases aren’t rare when students feel pressured by the perceived necessity to have that specific education, and subject themselves to extremely stressful selection processes for often romanticized schools that might not be the best fit for them. The value of the Ivy League education, in reality, originates largely from one’s ability to come out victorious in the process of getting that opportunity in the first place, and high schoolers often fail to consider the environment they are going to be placed in after the gloriousness of the “getting in” goes by. Will they be satisfied with four years in a very stressful education and in often very competitive settings? Furthermore, students sometimes fail to apply to the Ivies the meticulous criteria they are told to consider when selecting the other schools in their college lists: the climate, the size of cities, the area of focus of that university, the student resources, the campus, the culture… There is nothing wrong with favoring universities with more educational prestige or trusting your capacity to adapt, but it is important to have a more holistic view of the university and go beyond the fact that they are part of a group that started as, of all things, an athletic league -- not an exclusionary elite academic group.

Thus, in a sense, the Ivy League is and isn’t overrated. Its reputation is mostly true, but the intensity with which it is perpetuated seems out of control, and that, in turn, has the potential to create a lot of unfair advantage and distorted views of the situation. The truth is that the scenery of secondary education in the US is very complex, filled with historical weight and questions of the bias of the admission process and discussion about the quality of education -- but that is subject for another article.

The question as to what being overrated means in this case relies on the individual understanding. Ours’, the writers, is that yes, the Ivy schools’ reputation precedes them in an unhealthy manner that often fails to depict reality as it is, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Ivies aren’t some of the best to dream of. By all means, shoot your shot at your dream school, even if it is part of this very specific coalition, but be careful to not be blinded by the powerful effect of a romantic narrative you might have been fed without your knowledge.

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