Should I Choose an Ivy League School?

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Table of Contents: Should I Choose an Ivy League School?
1. What Does an “Ivy League” Education Mean?
2. The Price of Prestige: Is Ivy League Worth It?
3. Ivy League Tuition and Return on Investment
4. Degrees with Higher ROI at Public vs. Prestigious Schools
5. What it Really Takes to Get into Ivy League Schools
6. Expert Advice: With Erin Goodnow

Understanding the Ivies, Their Alternatives and Making the Right College Choice

When application season begins for high school seniors, it’s hard to avoid the pressure to apply for – and get into – an Ivy League college. If the long list of successful Ivy League graduates isn’t enough, the pride warranted by a thick acceptance packet from a top-ranked, highly-selective school might tempt anyone to give the most prestigious schools a shot. But are Ivy League and other high-pressure, prestigious colleges really worth it? Maybe. Read on to learn more about Ivy League and other highly-touted colleges, what it takes to get in and whether or not they’re the best option for you.

What Does an “Ivy League” Education Mean?

The term “Ivy League” originally described a collegiate sports league founded in 1954. Eight northeast schools comprised the league, which is still around today and still consists solely of those schools. Over time, the Ivy League became associated not only with athletic proficiency but academic excellence as well. Ivy League colleges have maintained their reputations as the top colleges in the United States and are known for their prestige, exclusivity and rigorous curricula.


    The eight Ivies are private, northeastern colleges that consistently make their way onto annual college rankings lists as top schools. Schools Included:
    Brown University
    Columbia University
    Cornell University
    Dartmouth College
    Harvard University
    Princeton University
    University of Pennsylvania
    Yale University


    Many private colleges outside of the Ivy League have gained similar prestige for their quality and exclusivity. These “new Ivies” or “private Ivies” are popular alternatives to the Ancient Eight. Some Schools Included:
    Amherst College (Massachusetts)
    Carnegie Mellon University (Pennsylvania)
    Duke University (North Carolina)
    Georgetown University (Washington, D.C.)
    Johns Hopkins University (Maryland)
    Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Massachusetts)
    New York University (New York)
    Northwestern University (Illinois)
    Stanford University (California)
    Tufts University (Massachusetts)
    University of Virginia (Virginia)
    Washington University in St. Louis (Missouri)
    Wellesley College (Massachusetts)
    Wesleyan University (Connecticut)
    Williams College (Massachusetts)

The Price of Prestige: Is Ivy League Worth It?

The table below breaks down some key differences between Ivy League and state colleges. Cross-comparing can help prospective college students determine if an Ivy League college is really the best option for them.


    State School
    $20,090 (in-state)

    $35,370 (out-of-state)

    Ivy League / Prestigious School


    State School
    Fill out application form
    Pay application fee, if applicable
    Request and send official high school transcripts
    Send SAT/ACT scores
    Write essays, if required
    Gather letters of recommendation, if required
    Submit FAFSA
    Wait anywhere from a few weeks to a few months for notification of acceptance or denial
    Ivy League / Prestigious School
    Fill out application form
    Determine whether or not to apply as an early decision or early action applicant
    Pay application fee
    Request and send official high school transcripts
    Send SAT/ACT scores
    Write essays
    Gather letters of recommendation
    Submit FAFSA
    Visit campus and meet with as many officials as possible
    Conduct admissions interview with a school representative
    Wait until spring for notification of acceptance or denial


    State School
    Varying acceptance rates, 50-90 percent
    3.0 GPA is a common requirement
    Average to high SAT/ACT scores
    Ivy League / Prestigious School
    4-14 percent acceptance rate
    Higher acceptance rate for those who choose early action or early decision
    Very high GPA (over 4.0 unweighted)
    Very high SAT/ACT scores
    Focused extracurriculars
    A special “above-and-beyond” quality
    A good “fit” for the institution


    State School
    Clubs, sports and other activities generally open to all
    Greek life
    Study abroad and internship, networking partnership opportunities
    Rural, urban and suburban settings
    Campus resources and facilities, like health centers, gyms, tutoring centers, equipment rentals and libraries
    Varying levels of curricula rigor, self-paced learning
    Often standard grading
    Ivy League / Prestigious School
    Clubs, sports and other activities, generally by application only
    Greek life
    Generally more exclusive study abroad and internship, networking partnership opportunities
    Rural, urban and suburban settings
    State-of-the-art campus resources and facilities, like health centers, gyms, tutoring centers, equipment rentals and libraries from wealthy benefactors and loyal alumni
    Generally rigorous curricula, high pressure to succeed
    World-class professors
    Often grading on curve (not everyone can get an “A”)

Ivy League Tuition and Return on Investment

Ivy League schools are notoriously expensive, but do graduates make more money and have more overall success than their public-school counterparts? There isn’t a straightforward answer, but students can and should look into the return on investment of attending an Ivy League school versus a state school. In other words, are the eventual gains worth the initial cost?


Many stats indicate that Ivy League graduates earn more on average than students who graduate from other schools, supporting the common notion that when it comes to college, you get what you pay for. One study from Lexington Law found that private school graduates earn about ten percent more than public school grads, which can buy them about three more years of retirement. Another published in the Washington Post in 2015 found that top earning graduates from Ivy League schools in particular make about 35 percent more than top earners from other schools.


But there is a bit of a catch. That private school grad who gets to retire three years early can also expect to spend four more years paying off student loan debt than a state school graduate. The average ROI for public colleges is twice that of private ones. Therefore, if a state school graduate makes a decent amount of money after graduation and pays considerably less for their degree, choosing public over prestige works out pretty well for them in the end.



That 35 percent wage gap still looks pretty big, but those top earning Ivy Leaguers may just be hardworking by nature. A decades-long study published in 1999 by a Princeton economist and an Andrew Mellon Foundation affiliate found that students who were accepted into Ivy League colleges but opted to earn their degrees elsewhere averaged the same income as their Ivy counterparts 20 years after graduation. It’s plausible that the types of students who have what it takes to get into prestigious schools also have what it takes to be successful, no matter where they get their degree. It’s also worth noting that many students who graduate from Ivy League schools have other success-bolstering resources at their disposal, like wealth and family connections.

  • Ivy League graduates can make a lot of money, but so can graduates from state schools.
  • The ROI of public colleges is double the ROI of private colleges.
  • Career success is ultimately determined by the student, not their school.

Degrees with Higher ROI at Public vs. Prestigious Schools

The following degrees may provide better return on investment at a public institution. Calculations are based on the estimated full cost for on-campus students (tuition, books, housing) for four years at each college and the 20 Year Median Net Pay for each industry.


  • ART DEGREESHighest Annual Return on Investment:$482,600 at the Fashion Institute of Technology – New York$482,000 at the Georgia Institute of Technology$437,000 at the University of Cincinnati
  • ENGINEERING DEGREESHighest Annual Return on Investment:$1,298,000 at University of California – Berkeley$1,204,600 at Lamar University$1,182,100 at McNeese State University
  • MATH OR COMPUTER DEGREESHighest Annual Return on Investment:$1,269,000 at University of California – Berkeley$1,168,000 at University of California – San Diego$1,157,000 at University of Washington
  • SCIENCE DEGREESHighest Annual Return on Investment:$785,000 at University of California – Berkeley$675,000 at University of California – San Diego$641,000 at Georgia Institute of Technology


  • BUSINESS DEGREESHighest Annual Return on Investment:$1,299,000 at University of California – Berkeley$1,119,000 at Worcester Polytechnic Institute$1,073,000 at Georgetown University
  • ECONOMICS DEGREESHighest Annual Return on Investment:$1,526,000 at Harvard University$1,304,000 at Stanford University$1,233,000 at Georgetown University
  • HUMANITIES DEGREESHighest Annual Return on Investment:$894,000 at Yale University$881,000 at Princeton University$853,000 at Duke University
  • PSYCHOLOGY DEGREESHighest Annual Return on Investment:$1,007,000 at Yale University$1,006,000 at Harvard University$964,000 at Duke University

Source:, National Center for Education Statistics

What it Really Takes to Get into Ivy League Schools

There’s a reason accolades are given to those who make it into Ivy League schools; the admissions requirements are intimidating and the application process is stringent. However, many myths and rumors surround the Ivy League admissions process, making prospective students wonder if there’s truth behind the hype. Check out these Ivy application rumors to find out what it really takes to get into the Ivy League.

“I need to have a 4.0 GPA to get into an Ivy League college.”

REALITY: Yes and no. Most Ivy League applicants have 4.0 GPAs or higher, so it is somewhat expected. However, students with GPAs slightly below 4.0 won’t necessarily be counted out if they have taken rigorous courses throughout high school and stand out in other, non-academic ways.

“I have to be at the top of my class.”

REALITY: Class rank is becoming less and less important to Ivy League admissions officers. This also means that being Valedictorian won’t guarantee you a spot on the Ivy League or other prestigious school’s admissions list.

“I will be evaluated on the same plane as all other applicants.”

REALITY: Ivy League schools present their admissions criteria in a straightforward way, but when nearly every applicant is extremely qualified, the admissions decision-making must be nuanced. Although it seems that all applicants are evaluated equally, it doesn’t actually happen this way. Students with less robust applications may still get a spot over another applicant if they fit the school’s needs in another way. Minority students, students from underrepresented parts of the country, those whose families can pay tuition in full, early decision students and students who fill other types of desirable niches may be evaluated in a smaller pool of similar applicants, separately from everyone else.

“Participating in a lot of extracurricular activities will boost my chances of getting in.”

REALITY: In preparing for Ivy League applications, some students spend their junior and senior years cramming in as many club and volunteer activities as possible because they’re told that’s what colleges like. However, most schools can see through that ploy and are much more interested in candidates who demonstrate deep interest and focus in one or two extracurriculars for an extended period of time. While this is actually true for most colleges, prestigious universities aren’t going to be as impressed by four years of student council or debate team. They see these activities on a large number of applications, so students with more unique interests have better chances of standing out.

“I have a strong application with high marks, test scores and great recommendation letters. I am pretty much guaranteed a spot in an Ivy League school.”

REALITY: Most people who apply to Ivy League schools hit all the above criteria and then some. Applicants have strong competition with one another, and almost every student who applies to Ivy League schools is technically a good candidate. Because of the high proportion of qualified applicants, prestigious schools look well beyond grades and recommendations. They want applicants to be a good fit for their school. Students have the chance to show their personalities through essays and an in-person interview, and serious applicants should make a point of visiting the campus and making as many contacts there as they can. Even with all that, highly qualified applicants can look very similar to one another, and the end decision of who gets in and who doesn’t can be arbitrary.

Expert Advice: The Pros and Cons of Ivy League Education

Erin Goodnow is the co-founder & CEO of Going Ivy, a college admissions consulting group focused on helping students find and get into their dream schools. Erin earned her master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri at Columbia and worked as a journalist and editor for major U.S. publications before founding Going Ivy in 2009.

1. Why are so many high school students drawn to Ivy League and other prestigious private colleges?

 Students always have been and always will be. The prestige is hard to ignore, and when you are 17, reputation and what others think of you can be a big deal. It’s not just that of course, it’s also that everyone knows these are good schools. Very accomplished people went there, so naturally an accomplished high school student would want to go there.

2. What are some common mistakes or assumptions students make about Ivy League and/or state colleges?

 Don’t think great grades and high test scores will get you into the Ivy League. Even people with perfect scores and grades get rejected. If your safety school is a public university out of state, don’t assume that will be easy either. Many of these schools favor in-state residents and only have a small number of desks in the classroom for people from the rest of the world. 

3. Are certain types of students better candidates for Ivy League schools than others?

Ivy League schools, just like all other colleges, are looking for well-rounded classes with some STEM minds, some budding entrepreneurs, some social justice activists, some literary scholars, some talented athletes and more. Whatever type you think you are, you need to demonstrate that with commitment and maturity to the admissions officers, no matter where you apply. The Ivy League schools will typically force you to demonstrate that in writing with a lot more essays, and potentially also in an interview. So a poised, organized and motivated candidate will be better.

4. What tips do you have to help students determine what type of college is right for them?

Visit a variety of schools and follow some students around. Try to imagine yourself in the classroom engaging in discussion, studying in a quiet spot, or meeting friends for coffee. But don’t just think about what colleges you would like, think about what colleges would like you. Some school out there needs more students who play lacrosse and have a honed creative side, or a future doctor who is interested in finding a cure for Alzheimer’s. Find the schools, show yourself to be the candidate they need, and get that application in sooner rather than later.

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