What Makes an Ivy League Education?

Ivy on wall representing ivy league educationAs I’ve been up dating my spreadsheet, I’ve been reviewing information on college quality and affordability. Looking through the data and how people use it has gotten me thinking about the latest attempts by the government to rate colleges, college rankings, and what makes a good education. As usual, I ended up with more questions than answers.

If you start thinking about what is the “best” college education, you can’t help but think about the Ivy League. And I’m not just talking about the Original Eight. Have you heard about public ivies, or southern ivies, or little ivies? Have you stopped to think about what it means? I’m not going for some hidden meaning here, basically people use these terms when they want to say that some school other than an Ivy League school provides an education just as good as that of an actual Ivy League school.

What I find interesting is the almost automatic, subconscious response that goes with bringing up such a label–“but how do we know that the school is really as good as an Ivy?” Having spent a lot of time looking at college data, I think the more meaningful response would be “how do we know what it means to be as good as an Ivy?”

In other words, what are the benefits of an Ivy League education that other schools are claiming to deliver as well?

What is it exactly that we’re going to measure to compare Ivy and non-Ivy schools?

Are you beginning to understand the dilemma here?

What are the Critical Components of an Ivy League Education?

What are you going to compare? The number of graduates who do…what? Make lots of money, hold political office, get into graduate school, donate the most to charity? Do you look at MCAT or GRE scores? If so, then do you compare the scores by undergraduate major or GPA so that an Ivy League education means that Biology majors with a 3.7 GPA score at least a 36 on the MCAT?

How about some measure of the quality of the faculty? Maybe the most Nobel Prize winners? Then you’re saying an Ivy League education is partially defined by access to the number of  such faculty. Given how few Nobel Prize winners there actually are at any one schools, can you really make assumptions about what effect their presence has on undergraduate education?

Let’s say that you come up with factors that you want to compare to determine how close a school is to an Ivy League education. It’s still not likely to be a very valid comparison. Look at how Harvard and Stanford compare by various measures.

Is there anything on the list that cannot be explained by either 1.) Harvard having a 255 year head start on building reputation and alumni accomplishments or 2.) Stanford having a larger engineering program?

And ultimately, what do any of these measures have to do with what constitutes an Ivy League education? How much has to do with Harvard rather than the qualifications of the students admitted?

If You Can’t Measure an Ivy League Education…

At this point, you’re probably wondering why I just don’t go ahead and admit it, an Ivy League education is about the intangibles. Ok, fine, it’s about intangibles but then that means that there really isn’t evidence to support the belief that it provides a superior education. Obviously, a Stanford education isn’t the same as a Harvard education but can you really claim one is superior to the other?

So back to the start of this conversation, how do we know if a school is really good as an Ivy? We don’t, simply because we really can’t define what makes the Ivy League education “good.”

So, how do we know if a school is really good as an Ivy? We don’t, simply because we really can’t define what makes the Ivy League education “good.”

What does this mean for those looking to apply to colleges? If you’re trying to make college more affordable, you’re going to need to put your own personal price tag on the value of the intangibles, Ivy League or not, to be able to compare schools. And you should do it before you ever even apply for admissions, much less financial aid.

What Makes an Ivy League Education?

6 thoughts on “What Makes an Ivy League Education?”

  1. I think that this is a really good question and one not easily answered! To begin with, what does it really say about a college if a President of the United States graduated 150 years ago? 🙂

    I didn’t attend an Ivy League and don’t have any first hand experience, but I can speak to one thing you mentioned,the number of Nobel Prize winners at a university. It’s likely that this won’t matter much to undergraduates. It might matter to graduate students, but only if you’re interested in that exact field of study and you’ve found out the prize winner is good to work with. (A great scientist doesn’t necessarily make a great teacher or great manager.)

    Colleges change, so I think the number I find most interesting is the 20 year ROI.

    • I think the ROI is more useful when looking at specific majors. Otherwise, I don’t think they do a good job of making sure the salaries surveyed mirror the mix of actual degrees awarded. Of course, people end up working in something other than their degrees all of the time so there are problems with that approach as well. If nothing else, it make the idea that you can rank schools so precisely where Stanford is 5 and Harvard is 2 seem pretty ridiculous.

  2. I’m curious…what are the “intangibles”? Maybe the people you meet (peer students, professors, possible mentors)? Kindling one’s will to learn more, like through an amazing lecture by a world-class professor? Stimulating one to succeed because those around you (Nobel laureates, peers, researchers) are succeeding? Or perhaps opportunities to be placed into situations that you hadn’t thought of (labs, foreign travel, etc.), that you end up really loving? I graduated from a “top 15” school (US News & World Report ranking), not an Ivy. For me the concept of “quality” came through as an intangible; that whatever you do at university and in career life must be of an extreme quality – very original work with infinite attention to details.

    • Ultimately, it seems to become very personal. It’s like you say, it’s what you do choose to do at college and career that makes the difference.

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