Published on 2016/05/18
The EvoLLLution | Lessons Learned from the Ivies: On the Ivy Model and Its Influence
Though there are many aspects of the Ivy Model that are worth learning from, institutions should ensure they are not trying to emulate the approach of the Ivy League schools while moving away from their own position in the market.

The Ivy League institutions have taken on a reputation in the American postsecondary space that verges on mythical, but what is life truly like at these institutions? Sean-Michael Green endeavored to find out. After his own year-long tour of the Ivies, Green wrote The Things I Learned in College: My Year in the Ivy League chronicling his experiences, observations and insights. In this interview, he reflects on those experiences and shares his thoughts on the Ivy Model and its influence on the rest of the postsecondary space.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What led you to do a tour of the Ivies?

Sean-Michael Green (SMG): I feel like everybody should do something big. Some people hike the Appalachian Trail and some people travel overseas, but my passion is higher education. Whatever my big adventure was going to be, it had to address that passion.

In higher education, I do not hold all institutions as equals—there are some that I like more than others and it is subjective. The ones that I enjoy the most are those highly, highly selective schools

Evo: Could you identify any discernible “Ivy Model” during your tour that tied all the institutions together?

SMG: The Ivy universities tied together in all sorts of very real ways. The most obvious connection is the football conference that makes them all, by definition, “Ivy League” schools.

They do collaborate and talk to each other about issues big and small. When an issue pops up for one school, they will reach out to representatives of the other schools and have discussions around how to solve or adapt to it.  They don’t all adopt the same stance, but it is interesting to know that they are talking to each other.

When they recruit, they are recruiting the same pool of students, more or less. Interestingly, Brown is an outlier in that a lot of students at Brown had applied to multiple Ivies but were only admitted to Brown University. However, a lot of students at the other Ivies who were admitted to multiple Ivy institutions were rejected from Brown. This leads me to believe that Brown stands alone among the Ivies in looking for something different from—or in addition to—what the other Ivies want.

In general, we’re talking about private research universities with vast resources and deep alumni networks. Mostly, Ivy schools generate a lot of passion from their students, from the people who work there, from their alumni and from the community.

Evo: What is it about the Ivy experience that grips students so much?

SMG: It’s a complicated question and I’ll start with a very simple answer—Ivy League institutions can provide these experiences because of their resources.  I should also clarify that the Ivies don’t have a lock on the market when it comes to vast resources, nor do the Ivies have a market lock when it comes to great students or passionate alumni. There are a lot of private research institutions—like  Stanford, Northwestern and Duke—that are very similar to the Ivies.

The resources that a student has at an Ivy League school is incredible. When I was at Princeton I explored the physics department after making friends with some aspiring physicists and I’d spend time with them in their lab. Some of the projects they were working on were incredible. There were people using multimillion-dollar lasers in their research. At Dartmouth, there was a lab with it’s own MRI machine and students had access to experiment, with the assistance of the professor, with the MRI machine. At Cornell, it was common to find the aspiring architects in Rand Hall working on projects of various levels of complication at 2 a.m. on any weeknight, but students would never run out of supplies.

Students never have a need that goes unmet. That’s the biggest difference between going to an Ivy and going to a lot of other schools where the resources are more up for debate, more uncertain and more fixed.

Evo: Do you think it’s possible for a smaller institution—say a midsize public institution—to be able to deliver an experience that matches what students can expect at an Ivy?

SMG: My advice to any institution—including my own—is know who you are, and be that. Institutions shouldn’t try and be something else because the world is full of “something elses” but there’s only one of your school.

I don’t think any institution should change to be like any other institution. In fact, the more unusual you are, the better and bigger your market will be. That to me is where it’s at in the world of higher education.

Institutions need to stop trying to be an Ivy. Let the Ivies be Ivies.

Evo: What aspects of the way Ivies work would you suggest institutions try to emulate?

SMG: The Ivies do a great job of engaging their alumni. Again they have a very warm start—these are old schools with deep traditions and it certainly helps, but engaging alumni is critical and a lot of institutions really don’t engage. They ask for money and occasionally share news with their alumni, but they don’t really build that sense of community, which often comes down to the cost.

In my view higher education is a factory and what we’re manufacturing are successful alumni. Those alumni are our product. To go through the whole process and then ignore the product that you’re putting out there is really short-sighted. A lot of folks think about their alumni in terms of money, but not much else. Doing well with alumni is extremely important.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about some of the take away lessons that institutions can learn from the Ivies when it comes to growing and building a successful brand?

SMG: Thinking back at the things we talked about, the most important thing is not to worry about what your neighbours are doing. You should want to collaborate with and talk to them, but you should never try to be them or imitate them. That Harvard envy is just not healthy.

This interview has been edited for length and content.

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Key Takeaways

  • Ivy League institutions can create transformational experiences for their students because they leverage the resources at their disposal effectively.
  • Ivy League institutions also do a great job of engaging their alumni community at a level beyond simply looking for donations, which makes a huge difference in the long run.
  • While there are many lessons other institutions can learn from Ivies, college and university leaders should ensure they’re focused on their own missions rather than trying to emulate these institutions.