Poison Ivy

How Elite Colleges Divide Us

An eye-opening look at how America’s elite colleges and suburbs help keep the rich rich—making it harder than ever to fight the inequality dividing us today

“The true story of American social mobility is stagnation.” —from the introduction

Next Big Idea Book Club Nominee ,October 2022

The front-page news and the trials that followed Operation Varsity Blues were just the tip of the iceberg. Poison Ivy tells the bigger, seedier story of how elite colleges create paths to admission available only to the wealthy, despite rhetoric to the contrary. Evan Mandery reveals how tacit agreements between exclusive “Ivy-plus” schools and white affluent suburbs create widespread de facto segregation. And as a college degree continues to be the surest route to upward mobility, the inequality bred in our broken higher education system is now a principal driver of skyrocketing income inequality everywhere.

Mandery—a professor at a public college that serves low- and middle-income students—contrasts the lip service paid to “opportunity” by so many elite colleges and universities with schools that actually walk the walk. Weaving in shocking data and captivating interviews with students and administrators alike, Poison Ivy also synthesizes fascinating insider information on everything from how students are evaluated, unfair tax breaks, and questionable fundraising practices to suburban rituals, testing, tutoring, tuition schemes, and more. This bold, provocative indictment of America’s elite colleges shows us what’s at stake in a faulty system—and what will be possible if we muster the collective will to transform it.


“Beautifully written and engaging, Poison Ivy holds elite higher education accountable for exacerbating the gulf between poor and rich, black and white.”
—Erin I. Kelly, Pulitzer Prize–winning co-author of Chasing Me to My Grave
“A potent investigation into how elite colleges and universities in the U.S. perpetuate economic inequalities and fail to properly address the country’s ongoing racial divide.”
Kirkus Reviews
“A no-holds-barred take-down . . . Mandery offers a detailed and scathing indictment of how elite colleges . . . contribute to the nation’s increasing social and economic inequality. One of the best higher education books of 2022.”
—Mike Nietzel, Forbes.com
“[Poison Ivy] slams the role that the Ivy League and other private universities play in perpetuating and even worsening our vast social chasms.”
—Will Bunch, Philadelphia Inquirer
“Drawing on individual stories and fascinating data, Mandery shows that . . . so-called top schools . . . are accessible almost exclusively to the already well-off.”
—Mary Elizabeth Williams, Salon
“Mandery argues that the pernicious unevenness of social class at elite colleges is a blueprint for other modes of injustice. Liberal audiences may be startled to see themselves mirrored unflatteringly in these pages, yet readers must not turn away from this book’s cruel awakening. A necessary read for parents, academics, college officials, and most of all the students and alumni who benefit from this tilted system.”
—Alissa Quart, author of Squeezed and executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project
“It’s time to wake up and realize that our best ladders of opportunity aren’t at colleges with billion-dollar endowments—they’re at our publicly funded institutions.”
—Jack Schneider, co-author of A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door
“This book shines a light on the world of elite Ivy League universities in regard to their avowed support of education for all.”
Library Journal
“Lively and trenchant . . . Mandery presents his indictment with an appealing blend of storytelling and hard data.”
—Richard Kahlenberg, Washington Monthly
“One of several new and thoughtful books . . . asking whether it is fair that ostensibly meritocratic societies have handed such extensive power to a small clutch of academic institutions.”
—Brooke Masters, The Financial Times
“Mandery lays out compelling evidence that Ivy League universities—along with peer institutions such as Stanford, MIT, Chicago, Duke, and Georgetown—propagate segregation and income inequality.”
—Ross O’Hara, Psychology Today
“A staggering portrait of inequality in America, Poison Ivy offers poignant, lyrically written portraits of student lives on the margins of the American higher education system and a carefully constructed expos&eacute of the fundamental myth at its heart. Through conversations with experts, bolstered by data, Mandery shows that the well-recognized inequities at American elite colleges are not the consequences of segregation and disparities of opportunities, but rather the driver of them.”
—Philip Dray, author of There Is Power in a Union

News and Reviews

The Brian Lehrer Show

Listen to an interview with Evan Mandery about Poison Ivy on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show.

The Atlantic

Read an excerpt from Evan Mandery’s Poison Ivy in The Atlantic.

Kirkus Reviews

Read a review of Poison Ivy in Kirkus Reviews.

Goodreads Reviews