Why Are the Ivy League Schools Called the “Ivy Leagues?”

Why are Ivy League schools called "Ivy League?"

Flickr user Dieter Weinelt

Ivy League refers to the eight elite research universities that make up the Ivy League conference – Harvard, Yale, UPenn, Princeton, Columbia, Brown, Dartmouth, and Cornell. These eight schools are known for academic excellence and high selectivity in their admissions.

So, “Why are they called the Ivy League?” Well, they actually got their name from a tradition known as planting the ivy! Take a trip back in time with us to find out the history behind the Ivy League, some details about the name “Ivy League school”, and what colleges and universities make up the group today.

Why Are the Ivy League Schools Called the “Ivy League?”

The “ivy” association with the schools likely started in 1933 when the term was used by Stanley Woodward writing in the New York Tribune: “A proportion of our eastern ivy colleges are meeting little fellows another Saturday before plunging into the strife and the turmoil.”

This line was in reference to the football season – the schools, including Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Yale, the United States Military Academy, and the United States Naval Academy had already had long standing traditions in their competitions.

In 1935, the term “Ivy League” would specifically be used by The Christian Science Monitor. The term would be synonymous with “older colleges.”

During 1936, the original Ivy League schools would come together in an effort to maintain common interests when it came to sports and in 1945, the first eight members would sign the Ivy Group Agreement. This set standards for the football teams and, in later years, it would pertain to other sports. The League would be officially founded in 1954, with the first year of competition in 1956.

So Why Did Woodward Call Them “Ivy Colleges?”

Woodward most likely used the term “ivy colleges” for the future Ivy League schools because of the tradition of “planting the ivy!”

These were traditions in the 1800’s where the classes would plant ivy around the school. Penn, for example, planted ivy at every building in the spring and the day was known as “Ivy Day.” A number of these colleges shared the same traditions! That includes other colleges that are not considered “Ivy League schools” today.

What About the “IV League?”

There is one myth that tends to be perpetuated when it comes to the Ivy League school name and that is that it comes from the Roman numeral for four. This rumor is built off the idea that the sports league originally had four members. Although this is an interesting theory, there is no real proof that this is where the name came from.

Who Are the Ivy League Schools Today?

There are eight Ivy League schools today. They are regularly named to the top 50 schools in the country and all have outstanding programs, resources, and opportunities for their students. Today, the Ivy Leagues are:

Harvard University

Located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University was originally known as Harvard College, named so for clergyman John Harvard. It was founded in 1636, offered their first classes in 1642, and chartered in 1650.

Yale University

Looking through the entry gate at Yale University's main building.

Flickr user m01229

Yale University was originally known as the Collegiate School and was meant to educate Calvinist Congregational ministers. They only taught theology and sacred languages at first. It was founded and chartered in 1701. This Ivy League school can be found in New Haven, Connecticut.

Princeton University

Flickr user Jon Niola

Princeton University, first known as the College of New Jersey and located in Princeton, was founded and chartered in 1746. The first courses would be offered the following year. They would get their current moniker in 1896.

University of Pennsylvania

Flickr user X.

Also known as Penn or UPenn, this Ivy League school was founded under the name College of Philadelphia in 1740 by Benjamin Franklin. The early courses offered by the school were not focused on the clergy, but instead focused on overall higher education. It would be renamed University of Pennsylvania in 1791.

Columbia University

Columbia University - Best Urban College Campuses


Columbia University is located in New York City. Originally called the King’s College, the school was founded and chartered in 1754, with the first classes opening the same year. The Ivy League school would become Columbia College in 1784 and Columbia University in 1896.

Brown University

Brown University offers full-ride scholarships, though not free tuition.

Source: Flickr user dlthurston.

Located in Providence, Rhode Island, Brown University was first known as the College in the English Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations or Rhode Island College. The future Ivy League school was founded in 1764. And, although its founding was by Baptists, it was actually the first college on the continent that accepted students regardless of their religious affiliation. 

Dartmouth College

Dartmouth University offers free tuition and full-ride scholarships.

Source: Flickr user sarunas_b.

Dartmouth College, in Hanover, New Hampshire, founded in 1769, originally opened to teach Native Americans about Christian theology and English ways of life in an effort to turn them into missionaries. The school changed over the years before getting a major facelift in the turn of the 20th century and becoming nationally known.

Cornell University

Cornell University offers full-ride scholarships, though not free tuition.

Source: Flickr user [email protected].

Based in Ithaca, New York, Cornell University was created in 1865 by Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White. With classes starting in 1868, the Ivy League school focused on all areas of study from day one. Today the school also has satellite campuses in New York City and Qatar.

Every Ivy League school has an extremely unique and rich history. Interested in attending any of these schools? We highly recommend looking into their fascinating pasts before you apply!

Do you know what the Ivy League schools look for out of applicants? Each one is highly selective, so it’s essential that you have a game plan and know what to expect. Using our College Match tool, you can find out which universities or colleges best fit you – including, hopefully, these Ivy League schools!