4 Reasons Why We Should Stop Obsessing About Ivy League Universities.

Photo from Unsplash/Vadim Sherbakov

The Ivy League, contrary to what many might think, was initially a collegiate sports association comprising of 8 private universities in the northeastern United States. In the last few decades, the demand for Ivy League University admissions has exploded. While Ivy League students do enjoy a certain air of prestige and a well-developed alumni network, I believe that the obsession with these schools is unwarranted.

1) Choose your university depending on what you want to do.

The member universities of the Ivy League are often praised for being academically unrivaled. However, is this still true today? There are several lesser-known universities that certainly rival the likes of Harvard and Princeton in certain fields. Looking at the US, universities like Vanderbilt University and Caltech (and, of course, the famous MIT) are likely much better options than Harvard if you want to study engineering. The University of Chicago will provide you with much better education for economics compared to the likes of Brown. While Cornell does well for engineering, The George Washington University might be a better choice for medicine.

Don’t just attempt to enter“an Ivy League University.” You should see which schools are good for what you love to do and go from there. Possibly one or two Ivy league schools fit your requirements. But if you are one of those students that applied for all 8 Ivy League universities, you are most certainly doing it wrong.

2) Be critical of rankings.

Many times people will tell me “but Ranking X and Y say Harvard is the best university in the world.” While it certainly has an amazing brand name, don’t let the rankings mislead you. According to QS rankings, Harvard has the best business school in the world. Amazing! But Looking at The Financial Times ranking, Stanford has the world’s best business school. And as claimed by Times Higher Education, yet another ranking platform, MIT has the best business school. Again, no school is “the best” for everyone.

Talk to other former students, contact the faculty, visit the campus or watch a lecture from a professor researching the field you are interested in. This way, you can choose a school because it aligns with your values or priorities, not because ranking X says that it is the best.

3) Consider the opportunity cost

In many countries, people can attend university at a significantly reduced rate, perhaps even for free. For instance, the Dutch government subsidizes roughly $18,000 per student. This means that students only pay $2,000 in tuition fees. In more extreme cases, such as in Finland or Norway, students can attend university completely free of charge!

Imagine for a moment that you are a Norwegian honor student who managed to secure a spot in a John Hopkins medical program. While you had amazing grades, you didn’t quite make the cut to for financial support (I know many of these universities have need-based aid, just bear with me.) Option A would be to stay in Norweigh, attend your local university, and likely graduate debt-free. If you would find yourself in the situation where you have to fend for yourself, your monthly expenses would total approximately $9,000 as a student. If we multiply this by the 4 years it will take you to finish the program, this would yield $36,000. However, if you’re lucky and can live, eat and sleep at your parents’ house, your living expenses would be virtually nonexistent (thanks mom).

Alternatively, you could move to Baltimore, and attend the prestigious John Hopkins Medical School. Quoting from the medical school’s website, you can expect to spend a whopping $76,397 on tuition fees and living expenses in your first year (yes, only the first year). Using some quick arithmetic here, you would end up paying $305,588 for your four-year degree.

The concept of opportunity cost is nothing more than posing the question: what else can I do with 300K? You could raise your future child with that money, or even buy yourself a house.

Naturally, the true value you would derive from both programs is affected by a large array of variables. Where do you want to live when you graduate? How favorable would the conditions for a loan be? And most importantly, what kind of study are you considering paying $300K for? Remember, your mom might have told you to follow your heart, but the average doctor will earn that money back much, much faster than the average foundation arts graduate.

Regardless of the circumstances, always ask yourself: What else could I do with this money.

4) It is NOT a Golden Ticket to an easy life

Yes, it’s true. They weren’t lying. It really does help when your CV says “Harvard University” or “University of Oxford”. This, however, does not mean that every Harvard graduate “makes it” in life. It might help you secure a certain position, but after that, you will have to work just as hard (or even harder!) as everyone else. If you can’t do your work well, your boss couldn’t care less about your alma mater.

Another point to keep in mind is that the so-called Ivy League universities are rigged to win. Harvard admits only the very best students. These are people who had perfect SAT scores, won international science competition, or perhaps even won a medal at the Olympics. The Harvard graduate did most certainly not “make it” because he went to Harvard. Sure, it helped along the way, but the vast majority of these people would have been extremely successful regardless of which university they chose to attend.

In the end, try to determine at what kind of university you would feel good. While doing so, take the rankings with a grain of salt, consider your opportunity cost, and always remember that there is no such thing as a free lunch.



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Adam Rybko

Adam Rybko

MSc Development Economics @ LSE. I’m a high-achieving graduate student who writes about productivity, university admissions, and financially smart collecting.