Do Ivy League Schools Still Matter?

In his book The Ivy League published by Assouline, the writer and magazine editor Daniel Cappello visits the eight universities that formed the Ivy League and writes about their histories, architecture, famous alumni, campus cultures and effect on fashion. A Harvard graduate himself, he explains the prestige and the glossy sheen we´ve come to associate with the Ivies. Below, we talk about the relevance of the Ivy League diploma in today´s economic climate, trivia only true Ivy Leaguers would know, and which of the schools has the best-looking student body.

Do Ivies still matter today? Are they still a guarantee towards employment even in these financially difficult times?

I think it all comes down to the individual. Having a degree from an Ivy League school does not guarantee a job or a certain starting salary or any promise of some sort of expected lifetime earnings. There are studies about how Ivy League and other top-tier college graduates tend to earn more than their peers, but there are also studies that dispel the notion that an Ivy League degree gives anyone a statistically significant advantage in the marketplace. Many reports indicate that if a student is bright and driven, it doesn´t matter which college he attends, but what he makes of that college experience—engaging professors, using the opportunity to work in a lab, write for the newspaper, explore extracurricular activities, and so forth. Employers are impressed by how people perform in any given situation and by the reputation individuals build for themselves.

That being said, it is true that many top financial and consulting firms still tend to recruit heavily on Ivy League campuses, which does give the students there a bit of an advantage, especially in getting their foot in the door at the start. Recruiters do tend to rely on the solid reputation of Ivy League schools, and look at a degree from, say, the University of Pennsylvania as a guarantee of a certain kind of student who is smart, ambitious, and able to perform. Ivy League schools continue to sustain an elusive prestige factor and clout—not to mention access to high-powered contacts and networks—that go a long way in forging entrées into certain fields and making favorable first impressions.

What interesting facts/trivia can we learn from the book that only true Ivy Leaguers would know?

In trying to summon the individual spirit of each Ivy, I turned to mentioning some of the more interesting facts and bits of trivia about each school. So the chapters are full of small tidbits and points of pride that I´m sure students and alumni will recognize right away. For example, I point out how the mansion in The Addams Family was partly modeled after College Hall at the University of Pennsylvania, which is something that U. Penn students would probably know or have heard about. In the Yale chapter, I delve into some of the myths and details about the initiation processes for some of Yale´s secret societies, like Skull and Bones. Cornell grads will know what I´m talking about when I refer to the “Hot Truck,” a roadside vendor in Ithaca that for decades has sold pizza subs near campus, which, interestingly enough, were eventually picked up and marketed into Stouffer´s pizza. Cornellians might also know—though the rest of us might not—that the red and white labels on Campbell Soup cans were supposedly inspired by the crisp red and white colors of Cornell´s sports uniforms.

How has the Ivy League culture changed over the years?

Certainly the Ivy League culture of today is far from what it was only a half century ago. In the mid-1900s, the Ivy League was still predominantly what it had been for hundreds of years: the breeding—or finishing—ground for privileged white males of the Northeast. This select group of men tended to come from influential and wealthy families, and tended to go on to be the leaders of the country or of their day. It was characterized by a deep-rooted code of conduct and way of being—the quiet mark or privilege—that in recent decades has given way to a more modern Ivy League constitution. The 1960s ushered in the civil rights and women´s rights movements, and by the early 1980s, all of the Ivy League schools had become completely coeducational and, not incidentally, distinctly more heterogeneous and international. As pushes for increased diversity and meritocracy rolled through the Ivy League, the old boys´-club mentality slowly came unhinged, taking with it a notion of the Ivy League as a place for “drinking whisky and pondering higher questions,” as a British observer once summed it up. Today, it still clings to notions of its old-school past—traditions and nostalgia are part of its never-ending allure—but today it is an impressively competitive, diverse, and accomplished arena that kids and families the world over are vying to get into.

Which of the schools has the best campus? Attracts the best-looking students?

That´s impossible to answer (I´m going to get into trouble for anything I say!), but I think any of the schools´ students and graduates might be the first to admit that their campus is the best—and their student body the least attractive. I think that´s just part of the simultaneously proud, humorous, and self-deprecating nature of any Ivy League student (and characteristic of the longstanding good-natured rivalry among the schools).

There´s no shame in boasting about one´s school when talking about the physical campus. Having gone to Harvard, I happen to be partial to what the Harvard campus has going for it: the Georgian Colonial architecture; the bustling, quintessential college city of Cambridge; the Charles River; Harvard Yard; a quaint college feel set in an urban environment. But when I returned to all of the campuses to research this book, I still had the same strong reactions that I did when I toured them as a prospective student in the ´90s. Dartmouth is simply stunning in all of its natural, woodsy glory. It´s truly awe-inspiring (in fact, the campus is considered an arboretum itself). Cornell is also in a naturally glorious setting, with waterfalls, gorges, streams, and hiking trails. Princeton is picture-perfect with its Collegiate Gothic architecture, pristine setting, and movie-set-ready looks. If you think that New York is the greatest city in the world, Columbia cannot be beat. I could picture myself as a student at each school just by stepping foot on their campuses, all of which can set your heart racing a little faster.

As for that other kind of beauty, Yale´s Rumpus famously publishes an annual list of the fifty most beautiful people at Yale, though I don´t know if my research qualified me to make any gambles in saying which Ivy surpasses the other in that category. But I can point to some alums mentioned in the book: Natalie Portman did go to Harvard; Lauren Bush to Princeton; and John F. Kennedy, Jr., to Brown.

Just what is Ivy League style?

Ivy League style is a term used to describe the quintessential “look” that began to take shape on Ivy League campuses in the 1920s, just after World War I, and which reached its height in another post-war era, the 1950s. It started when WASPy Ivy League guys began to incorporate athletic clothes into their proper, buttoned-up gentlemen´s standbys of wool suits, tweeds, and flannels. It was an effortless, nonchalant fashion that mixed the classic stalwarts with sporting elements—caps, sneakers, pins, ties, and the like. And it was all worn with the youthful exuberance of a carefree, buoyant, football-tossing guy´s guy, who could go from playing a round of touch football on the campus quad straight to the lecture hall.

Why do you think it has such a lasting appeal?

I think the style has come to represent something that the schools themselves stand for. The Ivy League has always captured a certain part of the American—and now global—imagination. It´s long been a bastion of prestige, authority, tradition, and influence. As a collective “brand,” for lack of a better word, the Ivy League has come to stand for the idealized notion of the leafy, red-brick educational institution with all the trappings of distinction, fortune, and possibility that go with it—the American Dream itself, if you will. And it´s as if one could achieve all of that merely by dressing the part, in the clothes alone.

So I think there´s an aspirational element to Ivy League style, and also a nostalgic element. After all, it represents that post-World War II period of American history that was full of both optimism and innocence. In this sense, wearing Ivy-style clothing is like transforming into that postwar American hero: young, vibrant, triumphant, full of possibility.

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