They're often called the elite eight, boasting U.S. presidents, Nobel Prize winners, Wall Street CEOs, world leaders—as well as famous actors and musicians—among their alumni.
But they're incredibly expensive and getting more so—prompting many students and families to ask: Is an Ivy League diploma really worth the money?
No. And, well, yes. When it comes to education, they may be a draw with other schools, say analysts. But if your concern is getting and keeping a well-paying job for a lifetime, the Ivy League is still hard to beat.
"When an employment recruiter looks at an Ivy League degree, they will usually look at it more carefully," says Elena Bajic, founder and CEO of Ivy Exec, an online executive job search site. "An Ivy League education makes a candidate stand out, even before a recruiter talks to them."
Besides a high-profile degree, Ivy league schools provide a social network that other schools can't duplicate—emphasizing it's who you know as much as what you know, says Brian Eberman, CEO of StudentAdvisor.com, an education comparison site.
"From an undergraduate perspective, the primary advantage of Harvard or Yale is the connections that college creates between the students and their peers," Eberman explains. "Those connections can be quite valuable over time when it comes to jobs and salaries."
For the eight schools—Harvard, Cornell, Princeton, Yale, Dartmouth, Brown, Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania—their pedigree is long established. Seven of the schools are older than the American Revolution. (Cornell was founded in 1865.)
And admission standards for all are intimidating—they mostly take the top ten percent of a senior high school graduating class with the highest of SAT scores. All have sizeable endowments and get plenty of financial support from alumni while drawing first-class teachers.
"Students at higher end schools are taught by faculty who are leaders in their fields," says Dr. Patricia Brandt, associate dean and director at Stanford University. "To work with these faculty is to engage in study at the farthest reaches of the subject."
While not the most costly of U.S. colleges—Sarah Lawrence has that distinction at some $57,556 a year—Ivy League school fees average around $55,000, more than the median American annual income of $46,000.
But Ivy League grads should be more than able to recover those costs when they enter the working world, according to statistics.
Depending on a graduate's degree, the lowest median starting salary for an elite eight ranges from $49,400 for Brownto $59,600 for the University of Pennsylvania.
According to one study, that's about 32 percent higher than a graduate at a non-Ivy League, liberal-arts school.
A mid-career salary ranges from a low of $99,700 from Columbia to a high of $123,000 from Princeton and Dartmouth.
Those high-end salaries are a direct benefit of a high-end education, says Amanda Griffith, assistant professor of economics at Wake Forest University.
"Research suggests that educational expenditures and peer quality are related to future success in the labor market," adds Griffith. "Students that graduate from top institutions can expect higher average salaries."
Griffith says that an Ivy League student might also be getting a bonus even before taking a job.
"Students at higher tuition schools often receive significant funding from university endowments and alumni," Griffith says. "As a result, students will get a salary benefit by not having to pay the full cost of their education."
As for the actual learning behind a diploma, some experts say other schools are now equal to an Ivy League degree.
"They enjoy a reputation that can't be equaled. However, it doesn't mean the education matches it," says W. Kent Barnds, vice president of enrollment, communications and planning at Augustina College. "Many other university programs have caught up with them academically."
"Businesses are giving less preference to Ivy League grads since the advent of specific program rankings," says Dr. Mel Schiavelli, president of Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania. "Yale does not have an accounting program that equals the University of Maryland, and accounting firms recruit accordingly."
And not everyone who wants to climb the corporate ladder needs to be an Ivy Leaguer, says Katherine Cohen, CEO and founder ofIvyWise, a private college admissions counseling company based in Manhattan.
"Some of our nation’s political leaders and Fortune 500 CEOs have come out of Ivy League schools, but there are still many more who did not and succeeded," Cohen explains. "Employers are more interested now in what a student has made of his or her college experience."
But some traditional firms still head to the Ivy League for new recruits because they are considered special, says Bajic.
"Senior execs like to hire within their circle. And companies like Goldman Sachs , Credit Suisse , McKinsey, BCG, Bain and others continue to put a preference on Ivy League grads because they see them as intelligent and driven," Bajic says.
In the end, however, it may be just as important to take stock of one's life as it is to brag about the college they attend, says Stanford's Brandt.
"After a certain age, people don't ask each other about their SAT scores or where they went to school," Brandt explains. "Such individuals value each other based on how they have moved through life and what good they have done for others."
For many college-bound students, the lure of a Dartmouth or Cornell remains intoxicating.
Christopher Stanley is a 21 year-old senior at Yale and has already secured an investment banking job on Wall Street after graduation. By picking an Ivy League college, the native of Los Angeles, Calif. admits to taking the fast track he saw others get on.
"My high school really set the tone for me to attend an Ivy League school," says Stanley, a student athlete who chose Yale over Penn and Brown, as well as other colleges that offered full scholarships.
"There were so many kids from my high school football team that got admitted to Ivy league schools and got great jobs and were off to do great things with their lives," Stanley explains. "For me, the choice to attend Yale involved the 'Oh' factor as a resume builder."
The 'Oh' factor comes with the first step on campus, Stanley says.
"We're constantly told that we have been selected because we are better and special," says Stanley, who will graduate with a double major. "This gets instilled in our brains from the moment we enter Yale."
Stanley warns that an Ivy League school is not for everyone—at least when it comes to finances.
"I've had great experiences at Yale, but the school itself does not breed success. If money isn't an issue then come here," says Stanley, whose family paid for his first three years before he received a full scholarship as a senior. "If money is an issue, you can probably get a good education elsewhere."
As he sums up the last four years, Stanley concedes the opportunities that lay ahead may be worth more than the education he got.
"Is my degree worth it? Maybe not," Stanley explains. "Are the connections worth it? Definitely."