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Published: July 4, 2011

Ivy League

An unofficial, informal term, of obscure origin, referring to a group of costly and selective private colleges in the northeastern United States with above-average academic standards. Ivy League is said by some to refer to the four (Roman numeral “IV”) first colleges in the colonies to receive royal charters: Harvard (1636), Yale (1701), College of New Jersey (1746; now Princeton) and King’s (1754; now Columbia). But in 1693 the College of William and Mary, rather than Yale, became the second college to receive a royal charter. second explanation acceptable—of ivied walls as a symbol of age. In 1939, when the term apparently became current, there were many colleges in the United States a century old or more with walls equally abundant with ivy.
The first known publication of the term was by sports editor Stanley Woodward, who may have originated it in a column in a 1939 edition of the New York Herald-Tribune. It was at that time that the eight colleges of the Ivy League—Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Brown, Dartmouth, Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania— formed an athletic conference. Although their teams participate in the larger Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference in some sports, the Ivy League remains an eight-team football conference that bans athletic scholarships and requires member schools to maintain the same academic standards for admission of athletes as they do for all other students.
Whatever the origin of its name, the Ivy League has, historically, been the most influential and prestigious group of colleges and universities in the United States, and such institutions as Harvard, Princeton and Yale continue to rank among the top 10 institutions of higher education by almost any gauge. Often called “The Big Three” of the Ivy League, Harvard, Princeton and Yale have combined to give the nation more presidents, Supreme Court justices, senators, representatives, governors, university presidents and other American leaders than any other comparable institutions.