We have a name for those elite institutions, where the brightest students go to study with Nobel laureates and spend late nights reading in vaulted-ceilinged Reference Rooms stacked with rare, dusty volumes. In the United States, there’s college, and then there’s the Ivy League.
High School seniors around the country compete on SATs, hone their personal essays, and calculate their weighted and unweighted GPAs on spreadsheets trying to realize a dream of Harvard or Yale. A degree from an Ivy is bigger than just any diploma, it seems, opening doors to a wider world of influence and relevance.
But what makes an Ivy League school? Most people think of a tree-lined, Northeastern campus with Gothic architecture, where gowned faculty confer on the way to their afternoon seminars. A place where new ideas develop every day, where students collaborate with researchers instead of just listening to lectures, where awards are won and real-world problems solved.
But past Harvard and Yale, which schools are Ivy League? After the first few, the list gets hazy for many people unless you’re a high school guidance counselor.
Swarthmore’s campus just outside Philadelphia sits among formal gardens and natural woodlands, rolling hills, and babbling creek. Canopies of trees envelop the sidewalks, and the snow dusts the Clothier Bell Tower.
Two-thirds of the undergraduates are working on research projects with professors. On any given day, award-winning faculty members teach classes, meet with students, conduct research of all kinds, write for academic and popular audiences, make films, compose music—Swarthmore sounds exactly like we’d picture an Ivy League campus.
Is Swarthmore Ivy League?
Swarthmore is not an Ivy League college.
There are only eight schools on that list, and their place in that hallowed company has more to do with who they play in football than how many Nobel prize winners count among their faculty. We’ll come back to that.
Varieties of “ivies” continue to grow: Public Ivies, Hidden Ivies, Southern Ivies, New Ivies, and Ivies Plus, a designation more selective than the original Ivy League itself. The list of “Little Ivies,” selective New England liberal arts colleges offering rigorous undergraduate programs, often includes Swarthmore.
While none of these additional “ivy” lists have any officially defined requirements, they do help potential students get a good idea of each school’s reputation and perception.
Schools on these lists usually have selective admissions processes, favorable faculty-student ratios, rigorous courses, and successful, prominent graduates. These lists show how students can find elite-level education in a host of schools outside the Ivy League.
As a member institution of the Tri-College Consortium, Swarthmore students draw on the resources of two additional “Little Ivies,” Haverford and Bryn Mawr.
Many individual departments at Swarthmore and the other “Little Ivies” rank higher than programs at the “actual” Ivies. Often, smaller class sizes and a more intimate campus setting allow students to access faculty and internship opportunities at these schools.
People think Swarthmore is an Ivy League school because of its location, its history, its prestige. The real reason to think Swarthmore is an Ivy League school is because Swarthmore is as good as an Ivy League school. In some ways, it’s better.
Why Is Swarthmore Confused As an Ivy League School?
Swarthmore sounds like an Ivy League school: founded in the 19th century, gorgeous Northeastern campus, and scores of Rhodes Scholars and Fulbright Grantees among its graduates.
Its acceptance rate certainly places Swarthmore in league with the Ivies; at 7-8%, Swarthmore comes in only a little less selective than Harvard (4.6%), and right in line with Dartmouth (7.9%).
The Ivy League term originated as a nickname for the sports conference, including the oldest private Northeastern research universities, many of which practiced a tradition of planting ivy on the first day of classes. Dating back to the 1930s, the name came to evoke all the prestige of those schools’ academic reputations.
Swarthmore fits the model of an Ivy League school with its history and traditions, including the solemn, candle-lit closing of Orientation Week called First Collection.
On Commencement Morning, Arboretum employees conduct seniors through the Bond Rose Garden and help them pick a rose to wear on their graduation robes.
These kinds of handed-down traditions give Swarthmore the feel of an elite society of achievement and intellectual camaraderie—very much the kind of experience associated with the Ivy League.
Distinguished alumni bring the kind of recognition to Swarthmore you might expect from an Ivy League member. Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis and astronaut Sally Ride attended Swarthmore, as did current U.S. Senator from Maryland Chris Van Hollen.
Award-winning writers Jonathan Franzen and James Michener were Swatties, and so was Isabel Briggs Myers, co-creator of the Myers-Briggs personality identification test.
Swarthmore College – Ranking, Acceptance Rate, and More
It’s an achievement to be named in the top five National Liberal Arts Colleges and the top five Best Undergraduate Teaching, but Swarthmore ranks highly as a Best Value School as well. It’s a private school, but resources exist in need- and merit-based form.
Many people know Swarthmore’s reputation as a great school for Economics, Philosophy, History, and Political Science. But Swarthmore’s unique Engineering program consistently ranks in the top 20% of undergraduate Engineering programs—a surprising feature for a liberal arts program. Its renown as an innovative department made Engineering the most popular major for incoming Freshmen in 2021.
Respected, highly-ranked undergraduate programs in Chemistry, Physics, and Computer Science further define Swarthmore as a versatile institution worth considering for many potential students.
And many students do consider Swarthmore. Admissions rates and requirements resemble Ivy League statistics. Like most institutions, Swarthmore saw record numbers of applicants for the class of 2025, so the current 7-8% rate is a little lower than their average acceptance rate over the previous decade.
Recent profiles of admitted students show Swarthmore’s student body diversity; two-thirds of the class of 2024 attended public schools, and over a quarter are first-generation college students.
A Forbes article from 2020 proposed a novel ranking premise: sorting undergraduate programs based on the number of Nobel prizes won by alumni. Two Ivies made it to the top ten; Swarthmore came in at number four, behind the prestigious École Normale Supérieure, the California Institute of Technology, and Harvard.
How to Get Into Swarthmore College
Swarthmore admissions focuses on their holistic approach to evaluating potential students. Hopeful applicants should define their purpose in attending Swarthmore and explain specifically how they can enhance the Swarthmore community.
Intellectual curiosity, independent thinking, and a willingness to collaborate rather than compete—these traits identify the ideal Swarthmore student.
Considering how selective Swarthmore has become, grades and class rank of accepted applicants reflect a highly-accomplished student body.
Swarthmore looks for rigor in high school curricula, but almost all accepted candidates also number in the top 10% of their high school graduating classes.
Similarly, the middle range of SAT scores for students accepted to Swarthmore runs about 1400-1530; ACT scores come in at 31-34. For the Classes of 2024 and 2025, standardized tests have been optional parts of the application process.
Roughly a third of Swarthmore’s accepted students in 2021 came from organizations like QuestBridge and CollegePoint. Matching and advising programs like these two and others can help high-achieving students with financial obstacles to college locate the best fit program, but they also help students stand out among applicants.
Admissions departments look for students who will be committed and finish their program. Participation in a college search organization shows focus, organization, and a determination to succeed.
Early Decision applicants to Swarthmore enjoy a much higher acceptance rate: around 24%. Students certain that Swarthmore represents their ideal should consider this option, though Early Decision, unlike Early Action, is binding. If accepted, students will be expected to rescind their applications to other schools.
Recap: Swarthmore Is Not an Ivy League School. However, It Is a Top-Ranked Liberal Arts College
Swarthmore fosters intellectual curiosity, collaboration, and lifetime intellectual alliances. Long-held traditions bind together a diverse, imaginative student body. Graduates become policy makers, entrepreneurs, artists, and Nobel winners. It’s ranked consistently in the top ten liberal arts colleges nationally.
Alumni success and productivity indeed ties directly to unparalleled access to faculty and to research opportunities. A smaller student body doesn’t make Swarthmore’s program any less competitive or rigorous, but more doors can open for all students.
Whether it’s getting published with a team on a research paper, starting a business venture with classmates, or presenting work at a professional conference, undergraduates at Swarthmore have a chance to start the professional work of their careers before they have their diplomas in hand.
Admissions at Swarthmore are need-blind, and the school awards financial aid as grants, not loans. The school meets 100% of school-determined financial need for admitted students, meaning Swarthmore alums can avoid the weight of undergraduate student loan debt. The average aid package for a student at Swarthmore often leaves the net price no more than the amount that student would pay for in-state tuition at a public university.
Swarthmore even offers financial support to allow students to take advantage of often unpaid summer internships, traditionally a place where lower-income students have a hard time competing. Venture funds can help with living expenses if a student works on a personal project during the summer months. The school’s support for students beyond the days of classes and exams constitutes a big part of how Swarthmore people become the kind of people who change the world.
Who needs the ivy? There’s always room in the dorm for a nice plant.