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Ivy League Rankings: What Do They Really Mean?

Posted by Justin Berkman | Dec 30, 2015 9:00:00 AM

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Ivy League colleges are often viewed as the gold standard of colleges in the US and worldwide. While most people know that all Ivy League schools are good, which are the best Ivy League schools? Now you can find out with my exclusive 2016 Ivy League rankings. Get excited!

In this article, I'll rank the Ivy League schools. Furthermore, I'll describe what makes the Ivy League unique, explain how to find the Ivy League school that's right for you, and give you advice on how to decide if you should pursue an Ivy League education.


What Is the Ivy League?

The Ivy League is the term used to refer to the eight schools that make up the Ivy League athletic conference. Below is the Ivy League schools list:


What Makes the Ivy League Unique?

Ivy League schools are all extremely selective private colleges in the Northeastern United States. Also, the Ivy League is the only NCAA Division I athletic conference that doesn’t award athletic scholarships.

The term Ivy League has become synonymous with extremely prestigious, selective colleges. For this reason, many people incorrectly label other prestigious private colleges like MIT and Stanford as Ivy League schools.



Stanford's Memorial Church is impressive, but Stanford isn't in the Ivy League. (Justin Kern/Flickr)


How I Ranked the Ivy League Colleges

It’s very difficult to rank the Ivy League colleges against one another because they’re all outstanding colleges. There really isn't a consensus about which Ivy League school is the best, and each ranking list seems to rank Ivy League schools differently.

To determine my Ivy League rankings, I looked at three different ranking lists, the lists from US News, Forbes,  and NicheEach list differed from the others. While there’s no consensus about how to rank Ivy League schools, there is general agreement that all of the Ivy League colleges are among the best schools in the country.

For my Ivy League rankings in this article, I averaged the rankings from the three different lists, but I counted the US News rankings twice. The US News list is the most prestigious and most often cited of all college ranking lists, so I wanted to give it more weight.

For a more thorough breakdown of the methodologies used to determine how schools are ranked for each list, check out my article on all the college ranking lists you should read.

I think these three lists complement each other well because they emphasize different aspects of colleges that contribute to overall college quality.

Of the three, US News' list most strongly emphasizes the academic reputations of the colleges. The academic reputation of a school is what education experts think about the academics at a particular college. US News gives a peer assessment survey to university presidents, provosts, and deans of admissions to help rate academic quality. Additionally, it surveys high school counselors across the country.

The Forbes list most heavily emphasizes student outcomes. It factors in alumni salary, the amount of debt students have upon graduating, and student loan default rate. Also, prestigious professional accomplishments from alumni, like winning an Oscar or a Nobel Prize, are factored into the rankings.

The Niche list most heavily emphasizes quality of life. While Niche also incorporates academic reputation and measurements of student outcomes into its rankings, unlike the other lists, Niche also factors in the quality of campus housing, athletics, technology, the party scene, and diversity into its rankings.



Here come the rankings! Hooray! (Alexandre Normand/Flickr)


Ivy League Schools, Ranked (2016)

Here are my 2016 rankings of the Ivy League schools. I created a table with each school's rankings, location, and undergraduate enrollment. The average ranking is based on counting the school's US News ranking twice. Click on each school's link to see its average high school GPA, standardized test scores, and acceptance rate. 

Also, US News separates colleges into 4 categories in its ranking list. All of the Ivy League colleges are considered National Universities, so each school's listed US News ranking is compared to other colleges in the National Universities category.

School Location Undergraduate Enrollment US News Ranking Forbes Ranking Niche Ranking Average Ranking
1. Princeton University Princeton, NJ 5,277 1 3 5 2.5
2. Harvard University Cambridge, MA 6,700 2 4 4 3
3. Yale University New Haven, CT 5,453 3 6 3 3.75
4. University of Pennsylvania Philadelphia, PA 10,357 8 11 8 8.75
5. Columbia University New York, NY 8,712 5 16 12 9.5
6. Brown University Providence, RI 6,320 14 8 10 11.5
7. Dartmouth College Hanover, NH 4,200 11 17 13 13
8. Cornell University Ithaca, NY 14,315 15 29 29 22



What Can You Determine From These Rankings?

As you probably already knew, Ivy League colleges have extremely good reputations. All of the Ivy League schools are ranked in the top 15 of National Universities on the US News list. In terms of numerical rankings, there is not much distinction between Ivy League colleges, but there are notable differences.

In most Ivy League rankings, Princeton, Harvard, and Yale will be at the top in some order. They're the top Ivy League schools and some of the very best colleges in the country. They're comparable to top tier non-Ivy League schools like Stanford and MIT.

There is probably some debate about which schools compose the next tier of Ivy League schools, but based on my rankings, I would put Penn, Columbia, and Brown in the second tier. Their academic reputations aren't quite as established as those of the first tier schools, and as a whole, they're slightly less selective. Comparable non-Ivy League schools include Duke, University of Chicago, and Cal Tech.

Then, the final tier of Ivy League schools would be Dartmouth and Cornell. Cornell has the highest acceptance rate of all Ivy League institutions, but it still only admits 16% of its applicants. Non-Ivy League schools that are comparable to Dartmouth and Cornell in terms of quality include Northwestern and Vanderbilt.

Remember that rankings are subjective, but they can reveal how colleges are viewed by employers, graduate schools, and the general public. Even though Harvard and Cornell are both incredibly prestigious schools where you can receive a world-class education and be part of a very succesful alumni network, there is a general consensus that Harvard is the better school.



 Matt Damon went to Harvard, but he left a little early to do the acting thing.


How Do You Decide Which Ivy League School Is Right for You?

Many of the Ivy League schools are very similar. They’re private schools of similar size with excellent academic reputations in the same region of the United States. They have large endowments and tend to offer generous financial aid. If you’re interested in attending an Ivy League institution, you’ll have to do extensive research to determine which Ivy League school is right for you.

Use college finders, search websites, guidebooks, and other ranking lists to try to find the college that's best for you. One of the biggest differences between Ivy League schools is their locations. Figure out if you want to go to school in an urban, suburban, or rural area.

The urban Ivy League schools include Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Brown, and the University of Pennsylvania. However, they’re in cities of very different types and sizes. Columbia is in New York City, which is the most densely-populated city in the country and offers a very unique experience. UPenn is the other Ivy located in a big city; it’s in Philadelphia. Brown is in the small city of Providence, Rhode Island, which offers a much more subdued environment compared to NYC. Harvard is in the college town of Cambridge, but it’s just outside of the city of Boston. Yale is in New Haven, Connecticut, which has a population of 130,000 compared to the roughly 8.4 million people in NYC.

Princeton is the only Ivy League school in a suburban setting. It's more self-contained and the surrounding area is quieter than the schools in urban environments. There are fewer entertianment options and cultural attractions than you would find in a city, but there are more than you would find in a rural location. Also, Princeton is only an hour from Philadelphia and an hour and a half from NYC.

Cornell and Dartmouth offer students a rural environment, where students are surrounded by nature and there's not much going on in the town unrelated to the college. Rural colleges tend to provide more of a community atmosphere, but there are usually fewer jobs and internships in the vicinity.

Typically, a student who would really enjoy being in the urban environment of Columbia would not enjoy the rural setting of Dartmouth and vice versa. Think about in which setting you would feel most comfortable and thrive.

Also, while Ivy League schools are strong in the humanities, social sciences, and STEM, there are different programs, general education requirements, majors, and concentrations at different Ivy League schoolsFor example, Cornell has the only Ivy League business-management program to focus on hospitality through its School of Hotel Administration. The University of Pennsylvania has one of the most prestigious business schools in the US, Wharton, and offers a number of undergraduate business majors that aren’t available at other Ivy League schools. Columbia has extensive general education requirements in its Core Curriculum and Brown has very few.

If you have an intended major or area of study, compare the majors and course offerings at the different Ivy League schools to ensure that you’ll be able to pursue your academic interests.

Furthermore, the size of the school is a factor to consider. While most of the Ivy League schools are of a similar size, there are differences. If you're deciding between Cornell and Dartmouth, keep in mind that Cornell's undergraduate enrollment is three times the size of Dartmouth's. Some students prefer a larger, more vibrant on-campus environment while others enjoy being around a smaller, more tight-knit community.

Additionally, you should consider the campus culture of each school. Different Ivy League schools have garnered different reputations for the type of student who attends the school and is attracted to it. For example, Princeton students are often viewed as more preppy and Brown students as more progressive. Some of these stereotypes may be more accurate than others. Read guidebooks, talk to current students or alumni, and take campus visits to get an idea of the campus culture and determine if you would fit in.



Do your college research.


Is the Ivy League (or Another Top-Tier School) Right for You?

When finalizing your list of colleges, remember that Ivy League colleges are reach schools for almost everybodyThe odds of getting into an Ivy League school are low, regardless of your academic resume and extracurricular activities.

If you want to get into an Ivy League school, you have to be extremely dedicated. For further information, check out some of our other articles that will help inform you about becoming a competitive applicant for an Ivy League school:

Even though there are undeniable benefits of attending an Ivy League college, some students decide that the sacrifices they have to make aren’t worth it. If you’re motivated and have a good work ethic, you can be successful in life regardless of the college you attend. You may prefer to take a less challenging class schedule or spend more time hanging out with your friends during high school. Doing these things may decrease your chances of getting into an Ivy League school, but you may be happier and enjoy your high school experience more.

If you’re willing to put in the necessary work to be admitted to an Ivy League school and are determined to go to one of the top colleges, you’ll have to be extremely committed to make that happen. The process to get into one of these colleges begins early in your high school career, well before you apply.

With enough determination and hard work, you may be able to give yourself a realistic shot of getting into an Ivy League college. If you make yourself a competitive applicant for an Ivy League school and you don’t get accepted to one, the chances are that you’ll still be able to attend a selective, prestigious college. 

Good luck!


What's Next?

If you've decided that you want to go to a top college, but you don't want to go to school in the Northeast, check out my articles on the best colleges in the South and Midwest.

To help identify the schools that you have a legitimate chance of getting into, read this post on target schools.


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Justin Berkman
About the Author

Justin has extensive experience teaching SAT prep and guiding high school students through the college admissions and selection process. He is firmly committed to improving equity in education and helping students to reach their educational goals. Justin received an athletic scholarship for gymnastics at Stanford University and graduated with a BA in American Studies.

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