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What Are the Southern Ivies? Is there a Southern Ivy League?

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The Ivy League is a term most commonly used for some of the most prestigious institutions in the U.S. All the Ivies are located in the northeastern part of the country; this is because the Ivy League was originally formed as an athletic league that made it easy for eight of the oldest schools in the U.S. to play sports against one another. 


So, is there a Southern Ivy League then? If so, which schools are considered Southern Ivies? Read on to find out.


Does the Southern Ivy League Exist?


While there is no one-to-one comparison for the Ivy League in the Southern U.S., the South is home to a handful of institutions that rival their northern counterparts in prestige, academic excellence, and challenging admissions. Some of the schools commonly considered “Southern Ivies,” are actually known as “Public Ivies.” The term “Public Ivy” was coined by Richard Moll in 1985 in his book, Public Ivies: A Guide to America’s Best Public Undergraduate Colleges and Universities, to describe a collection of schools that offer an outstanding educational experience at a fraction of the price of the actual Ivy League.


What Are Some Potential “Southern Ivies”?


There is no official list of Southern Ivy League schools, but below you’ll find 10 of the South’s finest institutions. These schools offer the academics, opportunities, challenges, and history of the original eight Ivies—some even predate them—while also offering a slice of southern hospitality and eliminating the harsh winters of the Northeast. 


Duke University 

Location: Durham, NC 

U.S. News Ranking: 10 in National Universities

Acceptance Rate: 7.8%

Enrollment: 6,526 undergraduate students; 16,095 total enrollment


Tracing its roots back to 1838 as a subscription school for the Methodist and Quaker families in rural Randolph Country, Duke has evolved quite a bit over the past 180+ years. Today, Duke is a leader in liberal arts education. A Duke education instills “habits of mind” in their students that help develop skills such as critical thinking and creative problem solving, and foster an appetite for discovery that helps students succeed at Duke and in life. Another core value at Duke is undergraduate research (research opportunities are offered to students in all majors), which serves students hoping for a job within the research triangle—the name given to the hyper-educated area encompassing three North Carolina cities (Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill) with a booming tech and startup scene.


Vanderbilt University 

Location: Nashville, TN 

U.S. News Ranking: 15 in National Universities

Acceptance Rate: 9.1%

Enrollment: 6,886 undergraduate students; 13,131 total enrollment


There’s a lot to love about Vanderbilt, including top-notch academics, a world-class city, and its gorgeous campus. In the classroom, Vanderbilt students rave about the low teacher-to-student ratio (7:1) and flexibility on the academic path (if you don’t like your major, you can easily change it). The city of Nashville provides nearly unlimited entertainment opportunities (it’s the Music City, after all) and restaurants galore. Of course, it’s tough to pry yourself away from Vanderbilt’s stunning campus—it’s a National Arboretum containing about 170 species of trees and shrubs. 


Rice University 

Location: Houston, TX

U.S. News Ranking: 17 in National Universities

Acceptance Rate: 9%

Enrollment: 7,170 total enrollment  


A mid-sized school in the nation’s fourth-largest city allows students to be known on campus, but also experience bigger city life. Rice’s campus is tight-knit; there are no fraternities or sororities, and the university’s residential system randomly assigns students to one of its 11 colleges—where they maintain membership through their undergraduate years, which creates a family-like atmosphere. Rice is minutes away from Houston’s downtown and in the heart of its museum district. Despite Houston’s size, the city itself can feel suburban—it’s much more spread out compared to cities such as New York, Chicago, and Boston.  


Davidson College

Location: Davidson, NC

U.S. News Ranking: 17 in National Liberal Arts 

Acceptance Rate: 18.27%

Enrollment: 1,843 total enrollment


Davidson’s honor differentiates it from other colleges and universities. More than words, the honor encapsulates the college experience—which includes take-home tests and self-proctored final exams. Beyond the classroom, the honor code means if you lose your wallet on Davidon’s campus, there’s a good chance there will be an announcement to reunite it with you. A close bond is formed between students, faculty, and staff, and that bond is only strengthened by the school’s small class sizes (the average class size is 16 students). Need another reason to love Davidson? The Davidson Trust meets 100% of the calculated financial need of accepted students through a combination of grants and campus employment.


Emory University

Location: Atlanta, GA

U.S. News Ranking: 21 in National Universities

Acceptance Rate: 19%

Enrollment: 8,079 undergraduate students; 15,451 total enrollment


Emory’s gorgeous campus is located in Atlanta, the capital of Georgia. A progressive, vibrant, and global city (it hosted the Olympics in 1996), Atlanta offers a multitude of entertainment, shopping, and culinary distractions from the classroom—including the largest aquarium in the world, housing more than 100,000 sea creatures. Atlanta is also home to 700 of the Fortune 1000 companies, an enticing prospect for students looking for internships or careers after graduation. On campus, the school provides everything a student needs to succeed, from small class sizes (71% have fewer than 20 students) to an extensive (150,000+ person) worldwide alumni network. 

Wake Forest University

Location: Winston-Salem, NC

U.S. News Ranking: 40 in National Universities

Acceptance Rate: 29%

Enrollment: 3,838 total enrollment


Wake Forest has always been on the cutting edge—it was the first top 30 national university to do away with standardized test requirements in the undergraduate admissions process; it also recently opened Wake Downtown, its 151,000-square-foot hub of programming dedicated to engineering and biomedical sciences. Despite being on the leading edge, Wake Forest maintains a close, uplifting campus. For example, a quarter of the undergraduate population participated in 2019’s Wake N’ Shake—the school’s annual 12-hour dance marathon benefiting cancer research—raising a record-setting $430,000. 


College of William and Mary*

*Asterisk indicates classification as a Public Ivy

Location: Williamsburg, VA

U.S. News Ranking: 27 in National Universities

Acceptance Rate: 37% 

Enrollment: 6,377 undergraduate students; 1,830 graduate students


An “Ivy League-quality education at state-school prices” is how many describe the College of William and Mary. The College of William and Mary also has the distinction of being the second-oldest college in the U.S. (founded in 1693); only Harvard is older. History is palpable at the school, which is adjacent to colonial Williamsburg—a restored colonial area. The College of William and Mary is a small school, set in a small town, and students are prohibited from owning a car, which leads to a familiar and tight-knit campus. 


UNC Chapel Hill*

Location: Chapel Hill, NC

U.S. News Ranking: 29 in National Universities

Acceptance Rate: 22%  

Enrollment: 19,117 undergraduate students; 10,984 graduate students


UNC Chapel Hill is known for both its academics and post-graduation employment opportunities. UNC is one of the 15 schools commonly grouped together and called “Public Ivies” and is located in the research triangle—together with cross-town rival Duke—which is home to more than 7,000 companies. UNC is also known for its standout athletics; the Tar Heels have won 13 men’s NCAA championship titles, and 30 women’s NCAA championship titles. Offering a great education for more than two centuries, UNC Chapel Hill was the first public university in the U.S. to open its doors and the only one to graduate students in the eighteenth century, admitting its first class in 1795.


University of Virginia (UVA)*

Location: Charlottesville, VA

U.S. News Ranking: 28 in National Universities

Acceptance Rate: 26%  

Enrollment: 16,777 undergraduate students; 7,862 graduate students


Founded in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson, UVA has a 200-year tradition of attracting intellectually curious students from not just Viginia, but across the U.S. and the globe. Charlottesville is an idyllic college town, big enough to provide an interesting diversion from your studies, but not so big as to be a distraction. A unique attribute of UVA is that there are no “freshmen” or “seniors” on campus; rather, students are called first-years through fourth-years because Jefferson believed no one could be a senior in their education. In fact, campus isn’t even called a campus, it’s called the “grounds.” 


University of Texas (UT) Austin*

Location: Austin, TX

U.S. News Ranking: 48 in National Universities

Acceptance Rate: 39%  

Enrollment: 40,804 undergraduate students; 11,028 graduate students


World-class academics, numerous research opportunities, and a diverse student body in a fun, left-leaning city (former governor Rick Perry once called Austin a “blueberry in the tomato soup of Texas”) are all reasons why students are attracted to UT Austin. Austin ranked number one in the U.S. News and World Report’s 125 Best Places to Live in the USA—in part for its entertainment opportunities. After class, students can enjoy festivals like Austin City Limits and South by Southwest (SXSW). While the city of Austin is appealing to students from around the world, the university is an active participant in the global world—UT Austin is among the top 25 campuses with the most international students and the top 25 for campuses with the most students studying abroad. 


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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.