From Public Ivies to Little Ivies - the Alternatives to the Ivy League You Should Know About

Students hoping to study in the USA often see Ivy League universities as the ultimate dream. But they’re not right for everyone! Whether it’s higher acceptance rates, lower fees or a different campus experience your students want, there are great alternatives to consider.

public ivies and other ivy league alternatives blog post featured image

If you’ve not heard of the Public Ivies, don’t worry - you’re not alone. Essentially, they’re a list of public colleges in the USA which are deemed academically excellent enough to qualify as the public equivalents of the esteemed universities which make up the Ivy League, those eight revered and prestigious American universities.

Even if you are familiar with the term Public Ivies, you probably have some questions. Why students should apply to these institutions as well as (or instead of) those in the Ivy League?

There are lots of great reasons! Public Ivies generally have higher acceptance rates. They also often offer lower tuition fees. Plus, their larger size and student bodies mean they can provide a livelier, more diverse on-campus student experience. And because they're more widely spread geographically, students could have a better chance of finding their perfect fit in terms of culture (and climate!). 

As well as the Public Ivies, there are also Little Ivies, Hidden Ivies, New Ivies… All these different institutions and categorisations might seem a bit confusing, but don’t worry! The main takeaway is positive: there are countless brilliant options to suit each of your students.

If you want to get a better grasp on exactly what these different groups actually are, and how to figure out which is best for each of your students, you’ve come to the right place.

We'll begin by looking at the most popular alternative with international students, Public Ivies. We’ll then turn to another popular Ivy League alternative, the Little Ivies. Finally, you'll discover a few other competitors and key terms to help your students as they research their options.

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What are Public Ivies?

The term "Public Ivy" was coined back in 1985 by Yale’s admissions officer, Richard Moll. Tellingly, it appears in his book Public Ivies: A Guide to America's Best Public Undergraduate Colleges and Universities.

As you can probably guess, it refers to prestigious public colleges and universities in the United States. The idea is that these institutions can provide students with similar experiences and excellence as those in the Ivy League.

Some of the factors which Moll took into account when creating this new category were:

  • Academic rigour
  • Quality of faculty
  • Cost of tuition
  • Campus facilities
  • Available resources
  • The age of the institution

Of course, 1985 was a long time ago - particularly in the world of higher education! Rankings are updated yearly, and we see huge changes even over the course of a decade.

Fittingly, this list has been revised and updated plenty of times. But these revisions are unofficial, as there's no external body or set criteria that determine which university qualifies as a Public Ivy. Ultimately, the one area in which any institution must prove itself is in its ability to match the Ivy League’s academic quality.

the university of michigan is an example of public ivies

What are the differences between the Public Ivies and the Ivy League?

While they rival the Ivy League in academics, the Public Ivies do differ from the Ivy League in several important ways. Let’s look at those now!

Public Ivies tend to charge cheaper tuition fees

One of the huge differentiators for students weighing up the Ivy League against the Public Ivies is often the cost of tuition.

For example, tuition at the highly-regarded Public Ivy Georgia Tech is just over 31,000 USD for anyone who doesn’t live in Georgia. Meanwhile, students could pay nearly twice that to attend an Ivy League school. Undergraduate fees at Dartmouth, for example, can run up to nearly 60,000 USD.

Public Ivies’ acceptance rates are generally higher

Despite their academic excellence, the Public Ivies have much higher acceptance rates. At traditional Ivy League institutions, acceptance rates are almost always under 10%. They can even be as low as just 4% of all applicants.

Meanwhile, the Public Ivies’ acceptance rates tend to fall between 15% and 40% on average. Even highly esteemed universities like the University of Michigan and Georgia Tech have relatively generous acceptance rates of 23% and 19% respectively.

One of the biggest reasons for this is that Public Ivies generally have much, much larger class sizes. As a result, there are more spaces up for grabs per applicant.

This not only gives students the chance to study amongst a more diverse peer group, but can also make Public Ivies a good safety option if students are worried they won't get accepted into the Ivy League schools they've got their eye on.

Likewise, for skilled students who don't quite meet the dizzyingly high entry requirements or average GPAs Ivy League applications require, the Public Ivies can be an attractive alternative. And without sacrificing the quality of the education they'll receive!

Note: There is considerable variation between different Public Ivy institutions' acceptance rates. For example, Purdue, admits 60% of applicants. UCLA, on the other hand, accepts around 10% (and that number seems to be falling each year!).

That’s not to say, of course, that competition for places at Public Ivies isn’t stiff. Plus, the high academic standards mean that incoming undergraduates need to be well prepared.

It’s important that your students strive for top grades in exams and assessments, and put together compelling personal essays.

Looking beyond the statistics

As is often the case, statistics don’t tell the full story here. It’s important that students are aware that many Public Ivies (unlike private Ivy League institutions) have some form of quota for in-state students.

As a result, any students who aren’t residents of the state (including, of course, all international students) automatically have slightly lower chances of acceptance.

For example, The University of Virginia has a blanket policy that two-thirds of its student body must be in-state students. As a result, acceptance rates are considerably higher for them (28%) compared to out-of-state applicants (just 17%).

Another unique example is the University of Texas in Austin. There, residents of the state who graduate in the top 6% of their high school class are automatically accepted! And state law requires that at least a massive 75% of in-state students are accepted through this “top 6” policy. Therefore, the chances of acceptance for non-Texans is significantly lower than the overall average of 32% suggests.

Top tip:  It's a good idea for students to look into admissions policies in the states of any Public Ivies they’re considering with regards to in-state and out-of-state applicants.

Public Ivies tend to have stronger athletic departments

At these institutions, university sports are often taken much more seriously than at their Ivy League counterparts.

Students who are keen to pursue athletic excellence alongside their academic endeavours should consider Public Ivies. Even avid sports fans might want to take this into consideration when comparing options!

Aside from great sporting events to watch, though, there are three important effects of the seriousness with which university athletics are viewed:

  1. Talented athletes often congregate at Public Ivies. Students can have incredible teammates and worthy opponents.
  2. Sports teams are often a source of funding for Public Ivies (through sponsorships, ticket and merchandise sales and so on). That means they can also receive more funding.
  3. There are lots of generous sports scholarships up for grabs for stand-out athletes.
public ivies have great athletics teams

Note: If athletic scholarships are a big pull for students, make sure you let them know that no Ivy League university offers them!

Public Ivies are larger than Ivy League universities

One final - very significant - difference between Public Ivies and the Ivy League is the size of the university. That often applies to the campus, the student population and the faculty!

If you take an average number of undergraduates across the eight Ivy League universities, you get around 8,500 students. Dartmouth, for example, has just over 4,000 undergraduates.

Meanwhile, the University of Michigan and UCLA - two prominent Public Ivies - each have over 30,000 undergraduates. The University of Texas at Austin surpasses 40,000!

As a result, Public Ivy campuses can be much livelier, busier places. But this doesn’t just impact students’ social lives. It often also means a diverse student body, a wider range of extracurricular societies, and a larger catalogue of classes to choose from.

That being said, the larger student body also often means larger student:faculty ratios. For example, UCLA’s ratio is 18:1. Princeton’s is just 5:1. Students at these larger Public Ivies might therefore get slightly less one-to-one time and personalised attention from professors.

public ivies have larger campuses

A more communal experience is in reach...

If students do want a tighter community feeling, they don’t need to write off Public Ivies altogether!

Firstly, some of these larger universities provide smaller courses and more communal experiences nestled within them. For example, the University of Michigan has its Residential College. It offers a four-year interdisciplinary liberal arts programme within the College of Literature, Science and Arts. There, a much smaller group of just 250 students enrols each year to live and take classes.

And secondly, there are smaller universities that can be considered Public Ivies. Take the College of William & Mary. Its undergraduate population is only around 6,200! There's also the whole category of Little Ivies which we’ll get to soon…

Key takeaway: which students are Public Ivies right for?

Now that we’ve thought about the differences between Public Ivies and the Ivy League, there may be students springing to mind who you think would thrive at a Public Ivy.

To help you decipher which students to point in that direction, here are some characteristics that make students particularly well-suited to Public Ivies.

Students who did not or might not get into the Ivy League

The Public Ivies are the perfect option for students whose grades and achievements are excellent, but possibly not quite enough to get into the ultra-competitive Ivy League for some reason.

Even for students who are on track to get a coveted spot at an Ivy League university, applying to some Public Ivies as a safety option is always wise.

Students for whom budget is a priority

As we’ve seen, Public Ivies can often come with slightly smaller price tags than their Ivy League counterparts. If students are on a tight budget and don’t secure any scholarships, Public Ivies may be more affordable.

Still, it's important to remember that many Ivy League institutions do offer generous scholarships. Students needn't avoid them just because of budgetary concerns! That's why spreading applications is so important...

Keen athletes or sports fans

Do you have any students who are somehow crowned MVP after every match while getting an A on every test? Are there athletes scoring a perfect 10 and a perfect 4.0 GPA? If so, the Public Ivies can be fertile ground for them to hone their body and their minds. Plus, they could get some incredible scholarships!

And if you have students whose conversations often revolve around the latest sporting event, or who you can count on to be cheering on the school team, let them know that the Public Ivies often foster a strong team spirit well beyond the bounds of the field.

a college hockey team

Students who want a strong campus spirit and an active social life

Granted, the Ivy League might give the quintessential campus experience insofar as being more tight-knit and community-focused. But the prevalence and popularity of sports matches and meets at the Public Ivies means that campus spirits can be very strong.

If students love the idea of the whole campus being united in their support for a team, of sporting the school colours, and of the whole population congregating on a Friday night to watch the game, then a Public Ivy might be the place for them.

Even those who don’t want their social calendar to include even the slightest whiff of sports should look to Public Ivies. Their generally large and diverse student bodies mean students have really dynamic and exciting social lives, on and off campus.

Students with a strong work ethic and motivation

Because of the larger student:faculty ratio, students at Public Ivies are often left to their own devices more than they might be at an Ivy League.

So if you have students who you can trust to get on with their work, organise their time and push themselves because they want to do their best, then a Public Ivy is ideal. They'll be able to exercise their self-discipline, take initiative and develop innovative and independent thought.

What are Little Ivies?

While Public Ivies are a great fit for lots of different students, they’re not the only alternative to the Ivy League! There are also the Little Ivies. These - as you might have guessed - don’t have the same large student bodies that Public Ivies tend to.

The Little Ivies are generally private liberal arts colleges whose academic rigour and selective admissions have much in common with the Ivy League (and Public Ivies!).

Although there isn’t an official list here either, the Little Ivies generally include the entire New England Small College Athletic Conference and a few other liberal arts colleges of similar size and academic reputation, like Amherst College and Vassar College.

little ivies are another good alternative

What makes Little Ivies different?

It'll come as no surprise that two of the biggest differences between the Public and Little Ivies is that Little Ivies tend to be smaller, private institutions... after all, it's all in the names!

But there are a couple of other key differences your students will want to bear in mind.

An undergraduate focus

One distinctive characteristic of Little Ivies is that they very often focus exclusively (or very strongly) on undergraduate education. Bowdoin, Amherst and Hamilton Colleges, for example, don’t offer any graduate programmes.

On the other hand, both the Ivy League and Public Ivies have robust graduate offerings.

A wealth of scholarship opportunities

Because of their much smaller student body and their generally elite status, Little Ivies tend to have sizeable endowments which only need to be shared amongst a small number of students.

As a result, they can often offer plenty of generous scholarships, meaning that their private status needn’t put off any students on a budget. On the other hand, Public Ivies tend to have relatively much smaller endowments to be dispersed amongst many, many more students - meaning there’s less funding up for grabs.

Which students are Little Ivies right for?

So which of your students might find their brightest future tucked into one of these Little Ivies?

Students who want a tight-knit community

If your students want a really collegiate experience in which they know most of the students and faculty on-campus, Little Ivies are a great bet.

Students who favour smaller classes

Some students feel that large lectures and busy seminars aren’t the best atmospheres for them to develop their thoughts. If they’d prefer more intimate classes, and would feel more confident exploring ideas with familiar faces, then they might want to opt for a Little rather than a Public Ivy.

Students who want plenty of face time with faculty

Likewise, students who aren’t so keen on self-directed learning and would like more one-to-one time with faculty should definitely consider these institutions.

Student:faculty ratios are almost always much smaller than at Public Ivies, meaning not only smaller classes but more of professors’ time at their disposal. They’re also generally smaller than the regular Ivy League universities (hence the name Little Ivy!).

Other alternatives to the Ivy League

Of course, we can’t explore in-depth all of the excellent institutions that the USA contains, but if your students are interested in learning about some of the other almost-Ivies they could consider, there are a couple of other key categories and terms they could come across.

New Ivies are newer universities that also boast academic rigour and world-class faculties. Unlike the Ivy League, whose institutions stretch only a few hundred miles, the New Ivies are spread across the vast country: from New York to California. Examples include UCLA and the University of Notre Dame.

Hidden Ivies can refer to any of these almost-Ivies, as they tend to get much less of the spotlight than the traditional Ivy League. Some further narrow them down into selective colleges offering outstanding liberal arts education, while some would add a small student body as a qualifying criterion (making it almost synonymous with Little Ivies).

Help students find their perfect academic home

As you’ve seen, there are many under-explored education options available to your students. And while that can be encouraging - and really exciting! - it can also feel overwhelming.

How can you hope to point students in the right direction when there are so many possibilities? And how can students research, compare their options and ultimately find the best match for their aspirations, their grades, and their budget?

With the right tools, of course! The free BridgeU platform makes this all much simpler. Our intelligent matching connects students with the courses and environments that best suit them, while their personalised content feeds ensure they have relevant, up-to-date resources on the places they’re most interested in.

So to help students explore the Ivy League and all of its almost-members, and craft really strong applications to all of the universities they choose, be sure to set up your free account today!

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