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How Did Ivy League Schools Come About?

What made Ivy League schools so important? Why do people just assume they're the best?

If there's one thing most people overlook about top schools, it's the roots of their prestige. This is doubly true when you're dealing with schools that carry a huge legacy, like Princeton or Harvard.

One group of schools, in particular, have an exceptionally good reputation. These schools are considered admissions goals for the world's elite.

I'm talking, of course, about the Ivy League schools.

Yes, everyone is well aware of how highly regarded these schools are. We all know that world leaders send their children there, that future Fortune 500 CEOs attend them, and that they have amazing programs respected around the world.

What makes a school "Ivy League" status though? I grew up in a scholastic family, and I actually didn't even know. I decided to find out for myself what makes a school "Ivy," and why people call them by this name.

First off, let's talk about which schools are Ivy League.

When you hear about Ivy League schools, you're not hearing about a particular level of scholastic excellence. It's actually a small set of schools. These schools are:

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

No other schools have been accepted into this league. So, what's the basis of acceptance, and why do people always associate this league with great schools?

Believe it or not, the "Ivies" is actually a college sports term.

Ivy League schools are schools that participate in a college athletic conference called the Ivy League. So, it's actually more or less a sports tradition that carried onto academia.

Historians show that the term was being used as early as 1933. However, the term for the conference only became official with the invention of the NCAA Division I in the 1950s.

Surprisingly, this term was not really meant to be academic.

As hard as it was for me to believe, I found out that the term had absolutely nothing to do with academic achievement.

For the first 50 years of the term's existence, it had more to do with the college's standing in basketball and football than it did with research papers. This league was developed to help pit schools in the Northeast region of the United States against one another.

The name itself came from an old school tradition that is no longer being done.

Even back in the 1930s, students had a certain level of admiration for the beautiful green ivy that would grow on school walls. This was actually enhanced by a tradition colleges had in the 19th century called "Planting the Ivy."

Many college seniors would plant ivy near college buildings during the 1870s and 1880s. It just so happens that the majority of schools that were under the Ivy umbrella still had ivy that could be traced back to that old collegiate tradition.

This was primarily a Northeastern tradition. Several top colleges had "Ivy Clubs" to encourage the growth and cultivation of ivy on campus, such as Princeton (which is probably one of the things no one tells you about going there, but is a neat little fun fact on move-in day).

Some people believe that this term started when four (IV) colleges met to determine the rules of football.

The Ivy name definitely has a couple of legends associated with it. One of the most common is that the league really got its start in the 1870s, when the game of football was first being invented.

It's said that the rules of football were made during the Massasoit Convention in 1876. Four of the current Ivy League schools were definitely present during this convention: Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Princeton. 

Whether or not this was the true origin of the term remains to be seen. However, it's still considered to be a pretty decent potential story to tell friends who attend an Ivy school either way.

It just so happened that Ivy League schools had a lot in common as far as history goes.

History-wise, the Ivy League is the oldest clique of schools in the sports systems. Seven of all eight schools in this league were established prior to the American Revolution. Only Cornell, which was founded after the American Civil War, is relatively modern.

This gives the schools in this league a very long history that few other college groups can match.

Knowing the history, it's easy to see where this group may have gotten a reputation for being elite.

Back in the day, college was something that was only accessible for high society and the upper crust. Most people didn't need a degree to find a job until fairly recently in human history. This meant most people capped education at high school.

Knowing that colleges were primarily reserved for the "brains" of society and for unconventional ways to networking at the time, it's easy to see why the colleges with the longest histories had the most elite reputation. This reputation continues to carry on today.

The relatively close geographic locations of the school and regular collaborations cemented their tight-knit associations early on.

If you ever noticed how everyone who attends an elite Ivy school seems to know people in all the other Ivy League schools, you're not alone. Part of the reason why the "Ivy" term became so heavily cemented is because the schools had a reputation for working together early on.

When they weren't competing against each other in sports, they were doing what they could to preserve the kind of sportsmanship, funding, and ideals they were trying to show in competition.

These days, the term has a cemented, academic definition.

Though Ivy League schools became famous for their athletic conferences, there's a lot to be said about their academics as well. Low acceptance rates, high grades, and a reputation for bringing in the best and brightest are now what they're known for.

In recent decades, the schools have started to make a more pronounced effort to cement the term as a phrase that has a dual-connotation. This can be seen through each college's Ivy Council, as well as the IvyPlus Exchange program that allows students to make the most out of college and take classes at other schools in this prestigious network.

As the term evolves, it's becoming clear that Ivy is an identity.

While the term "Ivy League" once meant a simple agreement to partake in sports together, it's becoming clear that Ivy League schools now view this term as a huge part of their identity.

It's a term that comes with culture. It's a term that has started to spawn academic collaborations and perks. It's a term synonymous with respect and prestige. And, if you've gotten enrolled in one, it's a term that means you've made it.

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