The strongest college brand names in the US are probably Harvard and Notre Dame.

I have never heard of a college being labeled “the Notre Dame of the South.” But I have heard of colleges that have been called “the Harvard of the South.” I’m not crazy about this label. Founded in 1636, Harvard is the oldest university in the US. It is older than all of the states in the country. Its founding predates Emory University (GA), the next oldest proclaimed Harvard of the South by 200 years.

For a college to be the Harvard of anyplace, it does not necessarily need to be as selective in admissions as Harvard. But it should be quite difficult to get into the school. The college should also be similar to Harvard in these ways:

  • It should be a national (vs. regional) private university with undergraduate, graduate and professional schools that has appeal across the United States as well as with college-bound students from other countries.
  • It should be a mid-sized (less than 10,000 undergraduates) school. Harvard has 6,700 undergraduates.
  • It should be located in or near a major city, just like Harvard.
  • It should attempt to meet 100 percent of demonstrated financial need, as Harvard does.
  • It should be a member of the Association of American Universities (AAU). These schools are recognized for the research accomplishments of their faculty. All of the member schools also have highly-desired graduate and professional schools. Harvard has been a charter member since 1900.

Of the above, the shortest list is the last. There are 26 private universities that are members of the AAU. Five are located in the South or Southwest: Duke, Emory, Rice, Tulane and Vanderbilt. Tulane does not meet 100 percent of demonstrated financial need—it most recently met, on average, 97 percent. Neither does Emory (averages 95 percent). These are still excellent, and reasonably generous, schools. But we are comparing schools to Harvard, which is setting the standards for this post.

Duke has approximately 6,700 undergraduates. Only 12 percent of the applicants for the Class of 2019 were offered admission. The freshman retention rate (97 percent) for the class than entered in 2015 and the four-year graduation rate for the class that entered in 2009 (86 percent) were about the same as Harvard. The university attempts to meet the full financial need. The major dissimilarity for all students is that Duke, while located in the Research Triangle of North Carolina, is further from a major city than the other “possible Harvards.” But it can still be considered a “Harvard of the South,” especially by Duke students and alumni.

Rice has a much smaller undergraduate population (around 3,900) than Duke. The total student population, undergraduates and graduates, is just over 6,700. Only 16 percent of the applicants for the Class of 2019 were offered admission. Rice’s freshman retention is about the same as Harvard’s (97 percent). The four-year graduation rate is 80 percent. Still excellent. The university attempts to meet the full financial need. Rice is also located within a large city. Rice has a claim to be a “Harvard of the South.” But if you want only one “Harvard of the South,” it has less of a claim than Duke because of the lower graduation rate and the smaller student body.

Vanderbilt has 6,900 undergraduates, only 200 more than Harvard. It’s as hard to get into Vanderbilt as it is to get into Duke. Only 12 percent of the applicants for the Class of 2019 were offered admission. Vanderbilt’s freshman retention rates was the same as Duke’s (97 percent ) The four-year graduation rate as slightly better (87 percent). The university attempts to meet the full financial need. The campus is in Nashville, one of the entertainment capitals of the US and a growing business center. Vanderbilt certainly has a claim to be the “Harvard of the South.”

Vanderbilt’s claim to be the Harvard of the South is the strongest based on my criteria .

What might be a major difference between Vanderbilt admits and Harvard admits? Vanderbilt also pursues athletes who must compete in one of the most competitive sports conferences in the country. The Vanderbilt baseball, football or basketball star has a much better chance of successfully going pro than his counterpart at Harvard.

For more insights to help you to compare colleges, contact me at or call me at 609-406-0062.

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