Which is the best Ivy League school? Learn how Ivy League rankings are developed, which ones matter, and what they mean for you
Ivy League rankings are released annually by major publications to the delight of students, alumni and university staff whose schools moved up and to the chagrin of those whose schools moved down.
Current and former students often use these rankings for bragging rights, and many journalists, media members, and educators downplay their significance, citing issues with methodology and bias. However, the pushback does not deter high-achieving college applicants and parents, who want to know which Ivy League school is the best.
Interest in this answer stems from the Ivy League being synonymous with America’s most selective, prestigious, and elite colleges. In other words, not only are Ivy League acceptance rates among the country’s lowest, each school carries a strong brand name that follows it alumni throughout their education, career, and network.
List of Ivy League Schools
Before we dive into the rankings and discuss which is the best Ivy League school, here’s the alphabetized list of the eight Ivy League schools:
University of Pennsylvania
How Ivy League Schools are Ranked
To be clear, there is no single agreed-upon list of Ivy League rankings, in part because they have relative strengths. (More on that later.) However, the four most widely cited lists are published by Forbes, Niche, US News & World Report, and the Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education.
Each set of rankings emphasizes different variables according to their primary focus, which naturally influences the order. For instance, whereas Forbes heavily weighs financial outcomes like career earnings, US News & World Report significantly considers schools’ academic standings. Fortunately, combining these different best colleges lists allows us to develop a strong overall sense of how Ivy League schools stack up against one another.
It’s important to note that Ivy League schools are ranked against other national universities (e.g., Stanford, MIT, UCLA, University of Virginia), but not liberal arts colleges (e.g., Williams, Amherst, Swarthmore), many of which are excellent, highly-regarded schools.
(Note: Further details can be found in the Appendix: Ivy League Rankings Methodologies)
Ivy League Rankings 2019
The following table summarizes each Ivy League’s background—location, setting, undergraduate enrollment (i.e., student body size), endowment size—along with its ranking across the four major publications.
Numbers in parentheses correspond to each school’s place among every ranked US college. On the other hand, numbers outside parentheses correspond to the relative rank of each Ivy League school within that list. For instance, in the Wall Street Journal rankings, Harvard is ranked the nation’s top college overall, which means that it’s also the highest-ranked Ivy League school. On the other hand, Yale is ranked third nationally, which is second highest among Ivy League schools.
Our Ivy League rankings are based on the average relative ranking, since this guide is concerned with the question, “Which is the ‘best’ Ivy League school?” However, average national rankings are also provided in parentheses.
Ivy League Rankings Discussion
“The Big Three” rank among the top Ivy League schools on nearly every list
Outside of Princeton ranking fourth best in the Wall Street Journal list, “The Big Three”—Harvard, Yale, and Princeton—comprise the top three institutions across the board. Along with Columbia, they also have the lowest Ivy League acceptance rates.
Selectivity is associated with each school’s desirability. The more selective a school is, the more likely it is that your child will list it as their dream school. Moreover, graduate programs, employers, and others who might one day evaluate your child’s resume will view higher-ranked schools slightly more favorably than lower-ranked ones. That said, all Ivy League schools are excellent. Evaluators will be impressed by your child’s attendance of any of them.
Overall rankings are lacking when it comes to determining “fit”
Most people would agree that Harvard, Yale, and Princeton are considered the most elite and prestigious Ivy League schools. However, based on your child’s subjects of interest, preferred setting, and opportunities, some schools might be a better fit than others.
For instance, if your child is interested in studying political science or drama, Yale would be an excellent choice. On the other hand, if your child wants to pursue engineering or hotel management, Cornell might be the better fit for them.
In addition, it’s important to consider each school’s setting when applying to Ivy League schools. Penn, for instance, might offer more immediate access to working with low-income communities than Princeton. Moreover, whether your child wants to attend school in an urban, suburban, or rural setting should influence their choice on where to apply. For example, do they want to live in a big city, or be as close to nature as possible?
Student body size is another meaningful variable for your child to think about. 6 of the 8 schools enroll somewhere between 4,000 and 7,000 undergraduate students, whereas only 2—Columbia and Cornell—enroll over 10,000 undergrads. Whether your child wants to be part of a relatively small or large student body might contribute to their overall happiness and social opportunities during college.
Finally, campus culture varies from school to school. For example, Harvard promotes close relationships among students through its residential college system, whereas Brown is widely regarded as the most progressive Ivy League school.
Ivy League schools aren’t the only prestigious schools in the country
Although the Ivy League is often used synonymously with “best colleges”, there are a number of other institutions that are just as academically and reputationally elite. In other words, your child does not have to attend an Ivy League school in order for them to be considered among the country’s highest-achieving students.
While not an exhaustive list, universities like Stanford, MIT, University of Chicago, Duke, Caltech, Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, Emory, Vanderbilt, Rice, and Georgetown are considered as prestigious as various Ivy League schools. Depending on your child’s school preferences, these “Ivy Plus” schools might be better fits for them, along with Public Ivies.
Appendix: Ivy League Rankings Methodologies
Alumni salary: 20%
Student satisfaction: 20%
American leaders: 15%
On-time graduation rate: 12.5%
Academic success: 12.5%
(Learn more details about the Forbes methodology here)
As of August 2019, Niche does not detail the percentage weight assigned to various factors it considers when ranking schools. However, you can learn more details about the Niche methodology here.
US News & World Report
Faculty resources: 20%
Expert opinion: 20%
Financial resources: 10%
Student excellence: 10%
Alumni giving: 5%
(Learn more details about the US News methodology here)
Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education
(Learn more details about the Wall Street Journal methodology here)