What Are the Little Ivies and NESCAC?



The New England Small College Athletic Conference, or simply NESCAC, is a group of 11 extremely selective liberal arts colleges and universities with similar beliefs regarding college athletics. In 1971, these 11 schools created the NESCAC in response to their concern for the direction of college athletic programs with the aim of keeping a proper perspective of the role of sport in higher ed.


The 11 schools of the NESCAC are:


  • Amherst College
  • Bates College
  • Bowdoin College
  • Colby College
  • Connecticut College
  • Hamilton College
  • Middlebury College
  • Trinity College
  • Tufts University
  • Wesleyan University
  • Williams College


The Little Ivies


The NESCAC is often lumped into a group of schools unofficially referred to as the “Little Ivies.” The Little Ivies include all 11 of the schools in the NESCAC, along with other highly competitive liberal arts schools in the Northeast, but outside of New England.


The seven additional schools that make up the Little Ivies are:


  • Bucknell University
  • Colgate University
  • Haverford College
  • Lafayette College
  • Swarthmore College
  • Union College
  • Vassar College


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The NESCAC and the Ivy League


It may sound strange, but the NESCAC schools have more in common with Ivy League schools than do the additional seven schools that comprise the Little Ivies. The common perception is that Ivy League schools are grouped together because of their similar age, endowments, distinction, selective admissions, and reputation for academic excellence. What actually binds these schools together, however, is their membership in the Ivy League, an NCAA Division 1 athletic conference.


Because the schools of the NESCAC and the Ivy League are grouped together by athletic conference, the most obvious distinction between them is that student-athletes in the Ivy League participate in a Division 1 league which necessitates training and competing year round. Student-athletes attending the Little Ivies play in a Division 3 league, meaning they only compete during their sport’s season. For the student who excels in both academics and athletics, a Little Ivy league school could be a great fit, as they could participate in multiple sports.


What High Schoolers Need to Know About NESCAC and the Little Ivies


Despite sharing many characteristics with the Ivy League—most notably being old, exclusive, academically competitive, and highly regarded—there are many ways the NESCAC and Little Ivies distinguish themselves outside of athletics. The Little Ivies are typically small (the one exception being Tufts University, whose total enrollment has grown to 11,449 students), rural, and focused on liberal arts.


Not to be outdone academically, Little Ivies make up 50% of the top ten schools on U.S. News and World Report’s Best National Liberal Arts Schools, with Williams, Amherst, and Swarthmore holding the top three positions. In the Forbes listing of America’s Top Colleges, the Little Ivies represent nine schools in the top 50 with Williams, Amherst, and Swarthmore ranking in the top 25.


Smaller populations and campuses can often facilitate especially productive and consistent relationships between professors and students. Williams, for example, has about one third as many undergraduates as does Harvard. These close-knit campuses often prevent students from falling through the cracks. According to U.S. News, five Little Ivies are in the top 15 on their list of schools with the Highest Four-Year Graduation Rates with Bowdoin and Amherst boasting percentages of 90% or higher.


Little Ivy league schools might also present college-bound students with an easier path to being accepted into a top school. For example, the average SAT score of a Harvard Student in 2016-2017 was between 710 and 800 in Reading and Writing and 720 and 800 in Math. This is as compared to between 670 to 770 in Reading and Writing and between 660 and 770 in Math for an incoming First Year at Williams. According to the website Liberal Arts Colleges, the average SAT score of incoming freshmen at the Ivy League schools is 40 points higher than that of freshmen entering the top nine Liberal Arts Colleges.


The Little Ivies also boast larger acceptance rates than what is found at Ivy League Schools. The “Little Three”—a moniker that was given to Amherst, Wesleyan, and Williams due to their participation together in a triangular league dating back to 1899, before the formation of NESCAC and to contrast the “Big Three” universities of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton—have acceptance rates of 13.7% (Amherst), 17.8% (Wesleyan), and 17.6% (Williams). For comparison, the acceptance rates at the Big Three are only 5.4% (Harvard), 6.5% (Princeton), and 6.3% (Yale).


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Timothy Peck

Short Bio
A graduate of Northeastern University with a degree in English, Tim Peck currently lives in Concord, New Hampshire, where he balances a freelance writing career with the needs of his two Australian Shepherds to play outside.

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