Why Is It Called the “Ivy League”?

Spoiler alert: It involves ivy.
Princeton University's ivy-covered Nassau Hall, which dates back to 1756.
Princeton University's ivy-covered Nassau Hall, which dates back to 1756. / (Nassau Hall) ; (Background) Justin Dodd/Mental Floss

The Ivy League seems aptly titled, evoking visions of stately old academic buildings covered in ivy. And that is partially how the group of elite eastern schools got its name—but it’s not the whole story.

Planting the Ivy

building exterior showing three rows of windows with verdant ivy filling the spaces between them
Princeton's Nassau Hall. / John Greim/GettyImages

It’s a long-held American tradition for colleges to observe Class Day: a day near commencement on which graduating seniors “[celebrate] the completion of their course, typically with formal festivities, prize-giving, etc.,” per the Oxford English Dictionary. Though the first written reference to the phrase class day is only from 1833, the custom itself was around before its name. 

Harvard’s class day grew out of an attempt in 1754 by administrators “to improve the elocution of students by requiring public recitations of dialogues, translated from Latin,” according to an 1893 article in The Harvard Crimson. Apparently, that particular function never really caught on, but students embraced the opportunity to gather and give speeches, and the event snowballed into a fun-filled day of activities.

One such activity, called “planting the ivy,” involved seniors planting ivy at the base of a building or wall on campus and often installing a stone tablet engraved with their graduation year. It’s unclear exactly when or where this practice began: The 1893 Crimson article says that Harvard’s seniors started doing it “around” 1850; at Bowdoin College, it was actually the junior class that kickstarted the ritual in 1865. Planting the ivy was well-known enough by the 1870s that when Maine’s Colby College got in on the game in 1877, The Portland Daily Press described it as “The old ceremonial of Ivy Day or planting the ivy.”

two cap-and-gown-clad senior boys planting ivy below an ivy-surrounded plaque inscribed with "B" and "1943"
Bates College students planting the ivy in 1943. / The Edmund Muskie Archives and Special Collection, Bates College, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

What we do know—as already evidenced by the mentions of Bowdoin and Colby—is that planting the ivy was never specific to the group of schools now called the “Ivy League.” Another defining factor helped solidify the list: sports.

Let the Games Begin

The origins of the Ivy League date back to October 14, 1933, when sportswriter Stanley Woodward referred to “ivy colleges” in a New York Herald Tribune article on college football match-ups.

“A proportion of our Eastern ivy colleges are meeting little fellows another Saturday before plunging into the strife and the turmoil. In this classification are Columbia, which will meet a weak Virginia team; Harvard, which will engage New Hampshire; Dartmouth, which is playing Bates; Brown, which is meeting Springfield; Princeton, which will strive against Williams; Army, which is paired with Delaware, and Penn, which is opening its season belatedly against Franklin and Marshall,” he wrote.

An 1875 Harvard vs. Yale football flyer with the game details, red trim, and an illustrated football on grass in the center
They've been at this for a while. / Fma12, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Woodward’s list of ivy colleges differs slightly from today’s Ivy League, which includes Yale and Cornell, but not Army (a.k.a. the United States Military Academy or West Point). Then again, Woodward’s rundown was neither official nor comprehensive; he only named the “proportion” of ivy colleges—i.e. old, esteemed universities—slated to face weak opponents that coming Saturday. Cornell and Yale were both discussed elsewhere in the article: Cornell got a shout-out in the very first sentence for its highly anticipated game against the University of Michigan, and Woodward later noted that Yale “may find the going cobbly against Washington and Lee.”

Woodward mentioned the “ivy colleges” again in another article just two days later. “The fates which govern play among the ivy colleges and the academic boiler-factories alike seem to be going around the circuit these bright autumn days cracking heads whenever they are raised above the crowd,” he wrote.

The earliest written reference to the phrase Ivy League didn’t appear until February 7, 1935, when Associated Press writer Alan Gould reported that “The so-called ‘Ivy League’ which is in the process of formation among a group of the older eastern universities now seems to have welcomed Brown into the fold and automatically assumed the proportions of a ‘big eight.’” 

sepia photo of 11 men sitting and standing on outdoor steps, wearing white baseball uniforms with "B" on the front
Brown University's baseball team in 1879. / Brown University, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Gould’s wording makes it clear he wasn’t coining a term, but merely reiterating one that was already in colloquial use, at least among those involved in forming this new conference. And while Gould did point out that the Ivy League schools had old age in common (they were all founded in the 17th or 18th centuries except Cornell, established in 1865), inclusion in the conference seems to have initially been based on existing sports schedules. In short, the athletic teams of the eight schools—Harvard, Yale, Penn, Princeton, Columbia, Brown, Dartmouth, and Cornell—were already playing each other, so why not make the league official?

Ironically, they wouldn’t actually make the league official for another two decades—and this part of the story dovetails with our modern conception of the Ivy League as academically elite. In 1945, the presidents of all eight schools drafted an agreement aimed at preventing their football players from letting the sport eclipse their focus on school. The team couldn’t practice during the spring, for example, and athletic scholarships were forbidden. (That ban on athletic scholarships is currently the subject of a class-action lawsuit.) In other words, you came to an Ivy League school to be a student, and you could play football for fun in your free time.

In 1954, the presidents expanded the agreement to apply to all student athletes. Its ratification is considered the point at which the Ivy League became an official athletic conference, though its first competition year wasn’t until 1956.

The Full Lists: Ivy League vs. “Ivy Plus” Schools

Since then, the Ivy League’s original list of eight schools hasn’t changed at all. But that hasn’t stopped people from adding other academically rigorous schools to an informal “Ivy Plus” list, which is less restrictive in terms of foundation year and location. You can see breakdowns of both lists below.

Ivy League Schools



Year Founded

Harvard University

Cambridge, Massachusetts


Yale University

New Haven, Connecticut


University of Pennsylvania

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


Princeton University

Princeton, New Jersey


Columbia University

New York, New York


Brown University

Providence, Rhode Island


Dartmouth College

Hanover, New Hampshire


Cornell University

Ithaca, New York


Ivy Plus Schools



Year Founded

Duke University

Trinity, North Carolina


Northwestern University

Evanston, Illinois


Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

Cambridge, Massachusetts


Johns Hopkins University

Baltimore, Maryland


Stanford University

Stanford, California


University of Chicago

Chicago, Illinois


California Institute of Technology (Caltech)

Pasadena, California


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