University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

UVM’s Proud “Public Ivy” Designation

Thomas Sullivan
Photograph by Sally McCay


UVM’s Proud “Public Ivy” Designation

The storied colleges and universities that carry the Ivy League imprimatur are recognized as some of the most prestigious and selective private institutions of higher education. In addition to their recognition for excellent undergraduate programs and preeminence in the liberal arts, the Ivy League schools are all of an age—many pre-dating the American Revolution—each with strong cultures carried on by students and alumni. All are well resourced and elicit the devoted support of alumni.

In the 1980s, at a time when increases in private school tuition began far outpacing the climbs in cost of living, college admissions departments started to notice a trend: A growing number of high-school seniors accepted to their “first-choice” private schools were choosing to attend schools with lower tuition costs. With this trend as his starting point, Richard Moll, a nationally recognized dean of admissions set out on a nationwide search to identify eight public institutions—paralleling the number of Ivy League schools—that offered an academically rigorous liberal arts education and carried the gravitas of age, tradition, and resource (or resourcefulness). His book The Public Ivys: A Guide to America’s Best Public Undergraduate Colleges and Universities offered college-bound students and their families an inside look at these eight public universities of distinction.

As one of Moll’s designated Public Ivy institutions, the University of Vermont shares distinguished company with the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Virginia, the College of William and Mary, Miami University of Ohio, the University of Texas at Austin, and the various schools comprising the University of California. From his well-researched comparisons, Moll highlights UVM as being selective in its admissions; academically and socially vital; strong in both undergraduate teaching and research, as befits the state’s land-grant institution; and high in resourcefulness, being nimble and creative in the face of minimal state support.

Moll’s was a decidedly subjective analysis. But now there are data—gathered in the form of a national survey of good practices—to measure quality in undergraduate education. The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), conceived in 1998 and supported by The Pew Charitable Trusts, invites undergraduates at colleges and universities across the country to report directly about their educational experience, measuring recognized practices that correlate with successful educational outcomes. The survey was created not only to measure quality in higher education—for the benefit of prospective students, parents, and high school admissions counselors—but also to provide colleges and universities with benchmarks to measure against in their commitment to fostering student success through proven educational practices.

The National Survey of Student Engagement is administered at UVM every three years to first-year and senior-level students, and is benchmarked against 114 higher and highest research-activity universities. The 2017 NSSE results show UVM students in both the first-year and senior cohorts as scoring significantly higher than students at our peer universities in a number of important engagement categories. These include reflective and integrative learning, collaborative learning, and supportive environment. Each of these categories indicating active learning, engagement with peers and faculty, and the quality of the learning environment map to student success in the classroom and in the college experience overall.

Our UVM seniors also showed impressively greater involvement with the “high-impact” practices of participating in a learning community, internship, field experience, clinical placement, or study abroad program; working with a faculty member on a research project; or completing a capstone course, senior, research project, or thesis. In 2017, 92 percent of UVM seniors reported participating in at least one of these practices, and 76 percent participated in two or more of these high-impact learning opportunities during their four years at UVM. 

A student’s choice about where to attend college is a critically important decision. Families are rightly concerned that the value of their investment be realized in the strongest practices that will support their student’s success. The NSSE data lay a strong foundation under UVM’s Public Ivy reputation, putting objective markers to the vital learning environment that our teacher-scholars have been fostering for generations. As we invest in our students, staff, faculty, and campus infrastructure to support a 21st-century learning environment, we continue the urge toward excellence that has defined UVM since its founding in 1791.

—Tom Sullivan

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