By now, everyone’s heard of the Ivy League — eight top U.S. universities that are as storied and prestigious as any other school in higher education — but have you heard of the Little Ivies?
Like the actual Ivies, these smaller, lesser-known universities are highly selective, have academically excellent students, and have a certain historical prestige.
This unofficial bunch of about 18 private liberal arts colleges provides the rigor of Yale or Harvard, if not the brand-name fame. While there are limited graduate degree programs at the Little Ivies, a greater focus on undergraduate education is the standard.
Undergrads should look into a Little Ivy if they want a challenging, individualized college experience. Students can expect norms such as an open curriculum and an interdisciplinary learning environment, regardless of major. In fact, many of the schools we highlight below offer dual degree and study abroad options at partner institutions across the country and world.
Eleven Little Ivies are part of the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC), so athletics, too, are a big part of student life.
Read on to find out more about 10 Little Ivies as good as the actual Ivies.
Colgate University (Hamilton, NY)
Located in Hamilton, New York, Colgate University primarily awards bachelor of arts degrees in 56 majors.
With an enrollment under 3,000 students and a 9:1 student to faculty ratio, Colgate is an ideal place to get a well-rounded education.
The campus’s rural location highlights their outdoor education program. Each year, a handful of students participate in a Wilderness First Responder certification, where they prepare for various emergencies that might occur in the wild.
A variety of outdoor classes are also offered for credit. Equipment for skiing, tree climbing, and boating is available to rent for recreational use.
Famous Colgate alumni include journalist Bob Woodruff and NBA basketball center Adonal Foyle.
Wesleyan University (Middletown, CT)
Like many of the colleges on this list, Wesleyan offers an interdisciplinary liberal arts education. However, its exceptional engineering and BA/MA programs stand out.
The dual degree engineering track is offered in collaboration with the California Institute of Technology and the School of Engineering at Columbia University. In five years, undergraduates can earn both a B.A. from Wesleyan and a B.S. from Caltech or Columbia.
The BA/MA program (in natural sciences, mathematics, and psychology) allows students to earn a bachelor’s degree at the end of fourth year and a master’s in fifth. Tuition for this final year is waived.
Wesleyan has produced 13 Pulitzer Prize winners, including Lin-Manuel Miranda for his hit musical Hamilton. Other alumni include U.S. politicians, composers, and filmmakers.
Williams College (Williamstown, MA)
U.S. News has ranked Williams College the #1 Liberal Arts College in the nation since 2004.
Part of the reason is the close ties between student and teacher, demonstrated through Williams’ Tutorial program. Over the course of a full semester, each professor guides a pair of students through an intense, seminar-like course of study. The students develop independent work (an essay, lab, project) that often culminates in co-published papers with faculty.
Williams’ Winter Study program is also a huge draw. Between fall and spring semesters, undergrads choose a single month-long class to expand knowledge outside their main course of study. Past Winter Study courses include Photojournalism, Yoga and the Art of Fully Thriving, and Paris Noir.
Williams is known for producing prominent creatives, such as Tony award-winning composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim and singer/filmmaker Wang Leehom.
Many politicians also hail from the college; nearly 100 members of Congress, state governors, and former Singapore prime minister, Goh Chok Tong, have all graduated from Williams.
Trinity College (Hartford, CT)
Similar in student enrollment and setting to Colgate University, Trinity College offers B.A., B.S., and M.A. degrees. Undergraduates can choose from 41 majors or design their own.
A Trinity education molds students into creators, innovators, and game-changers.
Venezuelan student Daniel Santos Ramirez ‘23 co-founded Yakera, a crowdfunding platform where Venezuelans in need can safely access financial support. Santos Ramirez says that studying political science and economics at Trinity will help him give back even more to his crisis-torn home country.
Kristine Belson, president of Sony Pictures Animation and producer of Oscar-nominated films How to Train Your Dragon and The Croods, cites Trinity’s Cinestudio as a major contributor to her career as a filmmaker. Cinestudio is a non-profit, on-campus art cinema that shows indie films and documentaries.
David Chang, restaurateur and TV personality, started a restaurant empire with Momofuku group, which includes Michelin two-star winner Momofuku Ko in New York City. He also created his own Netflix original series, Ugly Delicious.
Swarthmore College (Swarthmore, PA)
Founded by Quakers in 1864, Swarthmore College was one of the first co-ed colleges in America.
Today it enrolls a select 1,500 students who get to take part in the Quaker Consortium, a partnership between the University of Pennsylvania and Philly colleges Swarthmore, Haverford, and Bryn Mawr. Students can enroll in courses across the four institutions, taking advantage of a diverse curriculum and student life.
Swarthmore’s distinctive Honors Program also pushes students to experiment with original ideas under the close guidance of faculty. At the end of every school year, outside experts — from institutions like Harvard University and Switzerland’s University of Geneva — meet with the students for one-on-one discussions and oral examinations.
Some of Swarthmore’s unique majors include peace and conflict studies, cognitive science, ancient history, and interpretation theory.
Despite its small population, Swarthmore is one of the top producers of Fulbright Scholars and Nobel Prize winners in proportion to graduates. Among the college’s most famous alumni is astronaut Sally Ride, the first American woman to go to space.
Union College (Schenectady, NY)
Like Swarthmore, Union College is one of few liberal arts institutions that offer ABET-accredited undergraduate degrees in computer, biomedical, electrical, and mechanical engineering.
Union also values education with a global perspective: almost two-thirds of Union undergrads study abroad.
With a student body of just over 2,000, the college is able to channel its resources and funding into undergraduate research across all disciplines. Students regularly present their work to peers at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research. They also participate in Union’s Steinmetz Symposium Day, giving presentations, performances, and lectures.
Notable alumni include U.S. presidents Chester Arthur and Jimmy Carter, National Book Award-winning author Andrea Barrett, and Olympic skiing gold medalist Nikki Stone.
Hamilton College (Clinton, NY)
Many of the Little Ivies on this list have small graduate programs, but Hamilton is exclusively for undergraduates. That means more focus on the fundamentals: communication, collaborative learning, and critical thinking.
In fact, Hamilton has designated centers to help students develop their writing and oral communication skills. Hamilton alum and Netflix co-founder Marc Randolph credits his success to the written and verbal skills he learned here.
Hamilton prides itself on its open curriculum, which allows students to pursue their curiosity without restraint. The college also offers two dual degree programs in engineering: one with Columbia University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science and another with Dartmouth College’s Thayer School of Engineering.
Other prominent alumni include best-selling author Sarah J. Maas, behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elihu Root.
Amherst College (Amherst, MA)
Like Hamilton, Amherst College educates solely undergraduates and features an open curriculum.
Amherst College, Wesleyan University, and Williams College form the “Little Three” athletic rivalry, a counterpoint to the “Big Three” — Harvard, Princeton, and Yale — which historically has dominated Ivy League football.
Amherst is responsible for many firsts in and out of the classroom. Student Jared Kass started ultimate frisbee here in the 1960s. The college was the nation’s first institution to offer neuroscience as an undergrad major and one of the first to offer American Studies.
Notable alumni include U.S. President Calvin Coolidge, author David Foster Wallace, and award-winning actor Jeffrey Wright.
Colby College (Waterville, ME)
Similar to Williams’ Winter Study program, Colby’s “Jan-plan” occurs between fall and spring semesters and gives students the freedom to pursue additional research, internships, or courses.
Recently Colby established the Davis Institute for Artificial Intelligence, the first interdisciplinary AI institute at a liberal arts college. The center aims to study AI’s implications for economics, bioinformatics, genomics, ethics, and the environment.
Study abroad is also a huge part of the Colby student experience. By the time they graduate, two-thirds of undergrads earn course credit off-campus, whether from the University of Burgundy in Dijon, France, or the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences Boothbay Harbor, Maine.
Well-known alumni include ABC news anchor Dan Harris, chef Wylie Dufresne, and Harvard med school professor Gregory R. Ciottone.
Connecticut College (New London, CT)
In 1911, this college began as the Connecticut College for Women, in response to Wesleyan University’s banning of women in 1909. The college became co-ed in 1969, shortening its name to Connecticut College.
The scenic port city of New London is the perfect place to get a rigorous liberal arts education. Students often utilize the 750-acre Connecticut College Arboretum for studying, exercise, and outdoor performances.
Despite its small size, Conn’s graduates make a big impact on the world. Ipek Bakir ’12, James Finucane ’13, and Daniel Shoukimas ’13 made the Forbes 30 under 30 list in 2019, the third year in a row Conn students have made the list.
Notable alumni include writer Sloane Crosley and actress Joan Rivers. Bioinformatician David Haussler is most known for leading the team that discovered the first human genome sequence for the Human Genome Project.