The first permanent English settlement in the New World was at Plymouth Bay in what is now the state of Massachusetts in 1620. Merely 16 years later, a group of successful settlers in New Town (renamed Cambridge after their alma mater) started a college. They named it after the Puritan minister who willed half his estate and all his books to the college. This clergyman's name was John Harvard, and his namesake remains the most prestigious among the more than 2,000 institutes of higher education in the United States today.
Harvard is not the only great school in the U.S., of course. A small industry has grown up around the ranking of the best tertiary schools, and year after year, seven schools dominate most of these Top Twenty or Top Fifty lists. Harvard is nearly always at or close to the top, joined frequently by Yale (in Connecticut), Princeton (in New Jersey), Dartmouth (in New Hampshire), Cornell (in New York State), Columbia (in New York City), the University of Pennsylvania, and Brown (in Rhode Island). These eight private universities are collectively referred to as the Ivy League schools.
Why the name? Ivy is a vine; that is, a plant which grows up or along the surface of other plants such as trees, or, in the human landscape, along the sides of stone buildings. As these eight universities are old (the youngest among them, Cornell, was founded in 1853), ivy has had plenty of time to decorate the outsides of the more historic buildings on these campuses. The word league, however, is more an invention of imagination than a reality. Though there is an association called the Ivy League, it refers to the above schools' participation in an American football athletic conference rather than to any academic alliance. Further, despite the lengthy academic lineage of these schools, the footballing Ivy League was not formally formed until 1956, though highly competitive football and other athletic games have been hotly contested among the schools for many generations.
Since these institutes of higher learning had such an early start in the history of the United States, it is not surprising that they should individually and collectively have exerted a great influence on American society. Their status within national scholarly circles is unparalleled. Admission to these universities is highly demanding: many students apply for every one lucky enough to be accepted. As these universities are private, they are relatively expensive. Offsetting the extremely high tuition are many opportunities for scholarships. These scholarships are awarded to meritorious students regardless of their backgrounds.
Additionally, the roster of the faculties of these schools reads like a Who's Who list of important Americans (and quite a few foreigners, as well). Their intellectual integrity shows in the number of Nobel and other major prizes awarded which they have garnered over the years. Some of the country's most famous doctors, statesmen, engineers, scientists, and educationists have studied and taught within these ivy-covered walls. No fewer than 14 U.S. presidents have earned degrees here, including six at Harvard, six at Yale, and two at Princeton.
Though only a select few can join the ranks as Ivy Leaguers each year, Americans are endowed with a world-class tertiary educational system second to none. Not every graduate from an Ivy League school "makes the grade" in life; even a first-rate education is no guarantee of success. Still, those who do enter and leave the Ivy League universities in the northeastern United States have a much better than average chance to join the ranks of the movers and shakers of not only the U.S. society, but, once back in their home countries, of their native lands as well.