Harvard vs. Yale: Why there's more to the rivalry than you think

As two of the oldest colleges in the Americas, Harvard and Yale were always going to compete. But the legacy that competition between the Ivy League schools has left is huge.


Asha Bukharbaeva

10/12/20237 min read

Harvard and Yale boast storied histories, both with outstanding alumni who have left an undeniable mark on the world. Beyond the confines of academia and sports, their rivalry has become a reflection of larger societal and cultural narratives. As students, alumni, and supporters don their school colors, they also embody the values and ideals they believe their institutions represent. Despite the fierce competition, the two oldest universities in the United States have been able to collaborate on critical issues and make some surprising progress on global challenges.

When did the Harvard-Yale rivalry start?

Deep in the annals of history - we find that the origins of the Harvard-Yale rivalry can be traced back to the early colonial era of the United States. Both universities were founded within a few decades of each other, with Harvard established in 1636, followed by Yale in 1701. Neither was the first university in the Americas - the National University of San Marcos in Peru won that accolade in 1548. However, the strong links of Harvard and Yale to the British aristocracy via the colonies provided a foundation for their success. From their inception, these institutions have maintained a tradition of academic excellence and have produced numerous distinguished alumni who have made significant contributions to various fields.

American football helped the rivalry explode

The rivalry between Harvard and Yale took on a new dimension when their football teams clashed for the first time in 1875, marking the beginning of one of the most celebrated sporting traditions in American college football. The annual "Harvard-Yale Game" rapidly evolved into an iconic event that brought together students, alumni, and fans from both sides, with unparalleled passion and fervor. The intensity of the competition and the palpable energy that enveloped the stadium became emblematic of the rivalry's spirit, turning the game into a spectacle cherished by all. At the time of the first game, American football was not a well-defined sport, so matches like this helped shape both its contemporary qualities and its popularity.

One of the most famous and memorable games occurred on November 23, 1968, in what is now known as "The Game of the Century."During the 1968 season, both Harvard and Yale had impressive records and were undefeated going into their annual matchup. The game took place at the Yale Bowl in New Haven, Connecticut, and attracted a massive crowd, including prominent figures and celebrities. What made this game particularly remarkable was the dramatic ending. Harvard, down 29-13 with less than a minute left in the game, managed to score 16 points in a matter of 42 seconds to tie the game at 29-29. The final touchdown famously came after Harvard's players executed a perfectly executed play nicknamed reverently "The Play" that involved multiple laterals and a remarkable run into the end zone. The improbable comeback and last-minute heroics by Harvard left spectators in awe and disbelief. The game's outcome, a tie, has been regarded as a moral victory for Harvard, given the incredible comeback. The headline "Harvard Beats Yale 29-29" was coined to capture the spirit of the game and the unexpected turn of events. It has become a symbol of the rivalry's intensity and unpredictability.

Harvard and Yale trade blows in the statistics today

Beyond the football field, the competition extended into the realm of academia and extracurricular activities. The two institutions vie for academic excellence, campus resources, and the most distinguished faculty members. Yale and Harvard have a similar number of faculties, and are both better known today for humanities and social sciences than science and technology, but each has its own strengths.

Does Harvard have better funding than Yale?

Harvard’s endowment is larger than Yale’s by a notable margin, at around $50bn versus around $40bn. However, these numbers fluctuate substantially over time - since 2020 both have added $10bn to their endowments, demonstrating how quickly the gap could be closed. There is a much wider asymmetry in research spending, with Harvard committing $1bn annually to research projects. Yale, by contrast, offers 40% less.

What advantages does Yale have over Harvard?

Yale does have some notable strengths, though. Its campus is more expansive at c. 345 acres versus 210 acres for Harvard. It possesses a world-class library dedicated to rare books and manuscripts, vital if you’re doing research as a humanities student. Some also argue that it offers a warmer environment for undergraduates, thanks to its residential college system, which may help you to form friendships and develop your professional network quicker. It also has half as many students, which likely contributes to this effect. Yale is often ranked higher in terms of student satisfaction

Why would I go to Harvard instead of Yale?

Harvard, on the other hand, does own a lot of land around the city - hence the 5,000-acre footprint that is sometimes quoted. It has graduated 160 Nobel Prize-winner affiliates versus only about 60 for Yale. It is strong in most of the fields Yale is, but also has a globally top-ranked school of government and business school to its name. It has its own system of houses that intends to replicate the benefits of Yale’s residential colleges. Thanks to that business school, it tends to produce more CEOs than Yale, and in this respect is well-represented in the Fortune 500, the list of America’s most valuable companies.

What makes Harvard and Yale alike?

However, their similarities are overwhelming. Both charge fees around $60,000 at the time of writing, but offer 50-60% of students scholarships to cover some or all of the cost. Both have reasonably diverse student populations - more diverse in terms of race than the overall US population. Both are considered world-leading Ivy League schools, excelling not only in academics but extracurriculars as well. Harvard provides almost twice as many courses, but Yale allows for almost twice as many majors. They rank equal in terms of number of Pulitzer Prizes, and both have excellent liberal arts and law school programs. Earnings of their graduates are roughly the same, both in the short term and long term. No wonder they compete so fiercely!

Of course, their fierce competition is part of American collegiate life, and can be deeply nourishing. Without a clear and close-by competitor, either university might stagnate. What has allowed Yale and Harvard to rank alongside, and sometimes above Oxford and Cambridge, is their ruthlessly perfectionist spirit. This spirit is carried over into their brightest students.

Harvard and Yale regularly cooperate

The nature of their rivalry can be seen in its limits - the two Ivy League schools often come together on a wide range of issues to leverage their individual strengths. For example, the two institutions have partnered to develop a groundbreaking interdisciplinary program that combines technology and social sciences to tackle issues such as climate change and inequality. Additionally, they have established a joint scholarship fund to ensure that talented students from diverse backgrounds have access to high-quality education and can contribute to solving global problems. To grow their endowments, the universities have partnered on a timberland investment in New Hampshire. And to promote advances in healthcare, they have built research partnerships between their medical schools. On a lighter note, the two also collaborate to host joint art exhibitions on specific themes, pooling their resources, connections and collections.

Often, third parties amplify the scope and reach of their collaboration. The Harvard-Yale-Princeton conference is one such example, which tends to look at emerging trends in education. Through EdX, both Harvard and Yale have expanded dramatically the quality and quantity of free online learning available to the general public, with faculties from the two universities joining forces to maximise the efficacy of delivery. Within the Ivy League they have also improved learning resources, by launching Borrow Direct in the 1990s to facilitate cross-library lending and wider access to good books.

Both suffer from similar flaws

The students of both schools have been known to come together on occasion as well - to protest the administration. At the Harvard/Yale game in 2019, students from both universities demonstrated on the field, demanding their respective school’s presidents divest from fossil fuels. These collaborative efforts showcase the commitment of both student bodies to fostering innovation and making a positive impact on society, even when their university endowments continue to be involved in ethically dubious industries. The sheer size of their endowments, coupled with the tremendous soft power that the Harvard and Yale brands possess, mean that their investment policies have a substantial impact on global financial markets. Yet students from both universities argue that financial administrators have failed to take this moral responsiblity toward humans and the planet seriously.

A powerful competition that has adapted to the times

Today, this rivalry continues to thrive, undeterred by the passage of time. The annual football game remains a much-anticipated event, drawing crowds from all corners of the country and beyond. However, as society evolves, the rivalry has adapted to the changing times. Social media and digital platforms have amplified the spirited exchanges between supporters, turning the rivalry into a virtual battleground where the 120-mile distance between the two feels like nothing.

For those choosing between the universities, often your preference will come down to personal factors rather than objective ones. You can, through the US applications system, apply to both, but many will prefer to secure a spot at one or the other because of a famous alum they look up to, a particular scholarship policy, or the research work of a specific department. As tempting as it is to try and break down the rivalry in objective terms, the very reason it has grown to be such an iconic part of American collegiate culture is its conceptual emptiness - it’s far more fun to cheer for your side when you know you’re both winners. The real challenge is breaking into either.


The Harvard-Yale rivalry stands as an enduring testament to the power of competition in driving excellence, innovation, and growth. It has transcended the boundaries of academia and sports, becoming a cultural phenomenon that embodies the values and aspirations of two historic institutions and the nation they have helped shape. As the two colleges continue to influence the world in their distinct ways, their rivalry remains a symbol of the indomitable spirit that defines the pursuit of knowledge and the quest for greatness.