What's in An Ivy Name?

Over my many years as an independent college admissions counselor, I’ve often wondered about what motivates high schoolers to apply to certain colleges. Certainly, there are practical reasons, like legacy. If Mom, Dad, Grandpa, Auntie, or Uncle Fred went there, then that’s good enough for some, especially if a legacy connection can result in some slack during the admissions process. The so-called “prestige” factor looms large, too, sometimes even more for parents than for the applicants themselves. I recall overhearing one proud parent pull the old bait-and-switch routine one evening at an after-concert reception. Two fathers who hadn’t seen one another in a long time were catching up on family affairs. The one father was obviously proud of his daughter’s collegiate status and boasted, “Oh, yeah, Emily is at Penn State in the Schreyer Honors College! [certainly something to be proud of]. How about your boy?” Like a mountain lion stalking its prey, the other father smiled and quietly answered, “Billy’s very happy at a small private school in New Jersey.” Of course the desired reaction was curiosity. “Great!” responded Penn State Dad, “What school is that?” New Jersey Dad wound up like Nolan Ryan going for a perfect game and calmly answered, “Princeton.” To paraphrase George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf … and that’s how you play Pass the Prestige, Please.

Of course, economic considerations make many college-choice decisions by default. If a “prestigious” school doesn’t offer as much sorely needed financial aid as a decent lesser-known private school, then the decision becomes clear. This happens frequently. Speaking of prestige and the various shadows that the “top” so-called “elite” schools cast (I use quotes a lot because in some cases these “prestigious” schools may not always be thoroughly “prestigious”), I have sometimes pondered the names of colleges, especially the Ivies. So, really, what’s in an Ivy name?


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