The Public Ivies, Little Ivies, and Other Ivy League Equivalents

The Ivy League is well known for its academic prowess, which is why many other colleges use the "Ivy" label to showcase their prestige.
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Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
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An award-winning historian and writer, Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D., has published multiple scholarly articles and a book with the University of Chicago Press. She currently works as a writer and consultant. She holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern...
Updated on June 27, 2023
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  • Many prestigious and highly selective schools are compared to the Ivy League.
  • These Ivy League equivalents include research universities and small liberal arts colleges.
  • The Public Ivies consist of renowned public universities like UCLA and UT Austin.
  • The Little Ivies include colleges such as Amherst, Bowdoin, Colby, and Vassar.

Today, the term "Ivy League" connotes prestige, tradition, and power. Composed of academic powerhouses like Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and Columbia, the Ivies seem to dominate U.S. higher education. But what about other schools with excellent reputations that don't have the Ivy League label?

It's likely no surprise that Ivy League-level colleges and universities would borrow a little "ivy" to use in their own names. These similarly prestigious groups of institutions include public schools, small liberal arts colleges, and other lesser-known, top-tier schools.

What Are the Public Ivies?

The Public Ivies offer an Ivy League education at a public university price, according to Richard Moll, who coined the term in his 1985 book "The Public Ivys."

Moll's list of the Public Ivies consisted of 15 schools, including William & Mary, UC Berkeley, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Michigan, UCLA, and the University of Virginia. Moll also named nine runners-up, which, to him, offered near-Ivy-level education but weren't quite as strong.

The 2001 book "Greenes' Guides to Educational Planning" expanded the Public Ivy schools list to 30 public universities, divided by region (Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, South, Midwest, and West). Schools on this list include Indiana University Bloomington, the University of Georgia, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the University of Washington.

These institutions are all said to match the actual Ivy League in terms of academic quality. That said, the Public Ivies differ from the Ivy League in key ways.

For one, most Public Ivies are a lot larger than the Ivy League schools. While the undergraduate enrollment at the eight Ivies averages around 8,500 students, many Public Ivies boast far bigger undergraduate classes. Michigan and UCLA, for example, each enroll over 31,000 undergrads, whereas the University of Texas at Austin enrolls over 40,000 undergrads.

The Public Ivies also report smaller endowments than the Ivies — and these endowments must stretch further because of their larger student bodies. Although Michigan ranks above Columbia in its endowment size, the public university simply can't match a real Ivy in terms of financial aid for students.

The Public Ivies do, however, offer one huge advantage over the Ivies: lower tuition rates. While every Ivy League school charges more than $50,000 in annual tuition and fees, many of the Public Ivies cost around just $10,000 per year for in-state students.

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What Are the Little Ivies?

The Public Ivies aren't the only schools compared with the Ivy League. The "Little Ivies," which consist of private liberal arts colleges, offer both academic rigor and selective admissions similar to that of the Ivies and Public Ivies.

The Little Ivies include all the schools of the New England Small College Athletic Conference and several schools outside New England. Elite liberal arts institutions, like Amherst College, Vassar College, and Tufts University, typically appear on Little Ivies lists.

While many of the Public Ivies enroll tens of thousands of students, the Little Ivies usually have much smaller student bodies. Amherst, Bowdoin College, and Swarthmore College all enroll fewer than 1,850 students.

Additionally, the Little Ivies often focus exclusively on undergraduate education. While the Ivy League and Public Ivies offer numerous graduate programs, many of the Little Ivies only offer undergraduate degrees.

What Are the Hidden Ivies?

In a 2000 book, education experts Howard and Matthew Greene — the same duo who expanded Moll's list of Public Ivies — proposed the idea of the "Hidden Ivies." These 63 highly selective colleges offer a premier liberal arts education.

The Hidden Ivies include many small colleges, such as Davidson College, Pomona College, Carleton College, and Oberlin College, as well as some large research universities, like Georgetown University, Vanderbilt University, Washington University in St. Louis, and the University of Southern California.

What Does Ivy Plus Mean?

The Ivies aren't the only renowned private schools that consistently rank in the top 20. Many use the phrase Ivy Plus to refer to both the Ivies and a handful of similarly prestigious schools, such as Stanford, MIT, the University of Chicago, and Duke. Some lists, however, also count Northwestern, Johns Hopkins, and Caltech among the Ivy Plus schools.

Like the Ivies, these institutions are costly and highly selective, usually admitting fewer than 10% of applicants. They also offer prestigious alumni networks, large endowments, and lively traditions.

What Are the New Ivies?

In 2006, Newsweek coined the phrase "New Ivies." These schools rank high in academics and faculty, even if they don't reach the endowment size or elite status of the Ivies. Newsweek's list includes both public and private schools, such as Carnegie Mellon, UNC-Chapel Hill, Emory, and Notre Dame.

Unlike the Ivies, which all lay within just a few hundred miles of one another, the New Ivies stretch across the country, from the Claremont Colleges in California to Manhattan's NYU.

What Are the Black Ivies?

Eliciting comparisons to the Ivy League, the most elite historically Black colleges and universities are often called the "Black Ivies." These schools — including Howard University, Fisk University, Morehouse College, Tuskegee University, and Hampton University — were first singled out in Barnard psychology professor Jacqueline Fleming's 1984 book "Blacks in Colleges."

What Are the Southern Ivies?

When eight elite Northeastern universities joined the Ivy League athletic conference in 1954, Southern universities attempted to establish a rival league: the Magnolia Conference. Made up of schools like Vanderbilt, Emory, Rice, Duke, and Tulane, the Magnolia Conference was meant to compete with the Ivy League in more than just sports.

Though the athletic conference never took off, these prestigious Southern schools are still sometimes dubbed the "Southern Ivies."

What Are the Seven Sisters?

Nearly all Ivy League schools historically excluded women. Columbia didn't start admitting female students until 1983, and only Cornell admitted women from its founding in 1865. As a result, the seven (originally) men-only Ivies offered sister institutions for women. These schools, which were founded in the 19th century, were meant to educate the sisters of men at the Ivies.

The "Seven Sisters," as the institutions are known, include Vassar, Barnard (Columbia's sister institute), and Radcliffe College, which merged with Harvard in 1977. Today, Vassar admits both men and women, but the remaining Sisters operate as private women's colleges.

The Ivy League vs. the Almost-Ivies

The Ivy League schools don't have a monopoly on higher education. The Public Ivies, the Little Ivies, and many other non-Ivy schools can offer something the Ivy League can't. For example, the Public Ivies provide a big-school feel, while the Little Ivies emphasize even smaller student bodies than Dartmouth, the smallest Ivy League school.

The point is that anyone can get a good education at one of the non-Ivies. While Malia Obama chose to attend Harvard, her sister, Sasha, opted for the University of Michigan. Your education is ultimately what you make of it.