25 Oldest Colleges in the U.S.

May 1, 2024

oldest colleges in the us america United States

The founding of the United States is inextricable from the formation of American universities. From the years preceding and following the Constitution, the United States has seen numerous colleges and universities survive throughout momentous chapters in history. These surviving universities have played a significant part in changing the trajectory of American education, and they’re also some of today’s highest-ranking universities in the world. Here are the 25 oldest colleges in the United States of America:

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1) Harvard University

Founded in 1636 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University stands as the oldest college in the US. It was founded by the Massachusetts legislature and has consistently ranked as one of the world’s best higher education institutions. With an acceptance rate of 6%, Harvard remains in the top ranks of America’s most prestigious universities. Harvard was initially named “New College,” but changed its name after its first benefactor, John Harvard.

2) College of William & Mary

Named after the British king and queen, the College of William & Mary was founded in 1693 with the first royal charter. The college can technically be argued to be the oldest college in the US, especially as it was scheduled to open its doors in 1618 in Williamsburg, Virginia. However, due to an uprising at the time, 1693 became the official founding year for the college. Presidents such as James Monroe and Thomas Jefferson attended the College of William & Mary, and the college was an important player in the American Revolution.

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3) St. John’s College – Annapolis

Joining as third on this list of oldest colleges in the US, St. John’s College was founded in 1696 by the Maryland colony. It was initially named as King William’s School, but once the state of Maryland granted its charter, it became St. John’s College. Today, the college has an acceptance rate of 86% and also offers a recognized pre-college summer academy program for high schoolers. St. John’s College additionally has a second campus in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

4) Yale University

Yale University in Connecticut was founded by clergymen in 1701 and is one of the oldest colleges in the US. Today, Yale University is located in the town of New Haven, but was originally founded in Saybrook, Connecticut. Much like its initial location, the given name of the college was at first “Collegiate School” until it was named after its benefactor, Elihu Yale. Yale currently has an acceptance rate of 6% and is the alma mater to people like Meryl Streep and Anderson Cooper.

5) Washington College

Located in Chestertown, Maryland, Washington College was founded in 1723, making it one of the oldest colleges in the US. Much like many other schools at the time, the college was named after George Washington. When George Washington was a general, he served on the board of Washington College until he became president in 1789. Washington College today has an acceptance rate of 56% and has over 1,000 undergraduate students.

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6) University of Pennsylvania

The University of Pennsylvania was founded in 1740 by Benjamin Franklin, making it the sixth oldest college in the US. UPenn was the first American university to be modeled after European multidisciplinary education. With an acceptance rate of 10%, UPENN is considered one of the world’s best universities, much like the other Ivy League schools on this list. The university’s renowned programs like the Wharton School of Business are recognized internationally.

7) Moravian University

Moravian University is one of the oldest colleges in America and was founded in 1742 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The university was founded by Countess Benigna von Zinzendorf when she was only 16 years old. It was initially founded as the first boarding school for women in America, and it stands today as a small college of around 2,000 undergraduate students. Moravia University is one of the country’s colleges with no application fees.

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8) University of Delaware

Founded in 1743 by Francis Alison, the University of Delaware was originally located in New London, Pennsylvania. Around twenty years later, the university then moved to Newark, Delaware and became the alma mater of people who signed the Declaration of Independence. It is now one of the oldest colleges in the US and has several campuses spread across the state of Delaware.

9) Princeton University

Princeton University joins the list of oldest American colleges as it was founded in 1746 by the New Light Presbyterians. Similar to some of the oldest US colleges, Princeton was initially given another name – the “College of New Jersey.” The college moved from Elizabeth, Pennsylvania to Newark, New Jersey, then eventually to Princeton. Princeton University’s current acceptance rate is at 7% and remains one of the world’s best universities.

10) Washington and Lee University

Washington and Lee University was founded in 1749 by Scottish-Irish Presbyterian pioneers in Lexington, Virginia. George Washington made Liberty Hall Academy into Washington Academy, which then became Washington College. Then when Robert E. Lee was president of the school in the 1860s, his surname was added to the school. Washington and Lee University is one of the best liberal arts colleges in the US today.

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11) Columbia University

In 1754, the royal charter of George II of Great Britain founded Columbia University, making it one of the oldest American colleges. Columbia is also the oldest higher education institution in the state of New York and was originally founded as “King’s College.” In 1767, the university created the first American medical school to grant the M.D. degree, and it is now the only Ivy League school in New York City.

12) Brown University

Coming in as the 12th oldest US college, Brown University was founded in 1764 by the Baptist Church Association. The university was originally founded in Warren, Rhode Island, until it moved in 1770 to Providence, Rhode Island, where it currently is. Brown has long carried a tradition of inquiry-led education and academic excellence. It was the first university to admit students of any religious affiliation, and in 1891, women began to study at Brown.

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13) Rutgers University

Rutgers University was founded in 1766 by the Ministers of the Dutch Reformed Church. It was once known as “Queen’s College” in 1766 as a men’s college. The university later changed its name in 1825 after a Revolutionary War Veteran named Col. Henry Rutgers. Today, Rutgers is one of the largest public research universities and it has an acceptance rate of 60%.

14) Dartmouth College

Founded by Eleazar Wheelock in 1769, Dartmouth College was one of the nine colonial colleges created before the American Revolution. Wheelock’s charter for Dartmouth was intended for the “education and instruction of Youth of the Indian Tribes in this Land.” Dartmouth is the only school among the Ivy Leagues that is a college – the 14th oldest college in the US.

15) College of Charleston

The College of Charleston was founded in 1770 by several prominent South Carolinians. It is not only one of the oldest colleges in the US but also the oldest college south of the state of Virginia. Due to the American Revolution, the college didn’t progress until 1785, when it officially received its charter. Many of the College of Charleston’s founders signed the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. Today, the college ranks as one of the best colleges with late application deadlines.

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16) Salem College

Also founded by the Moravians, Salem College was founded in 1772 and is the oldest operating women’s college in the country. As a longstanding champion of civil rights, Salem College admitted African Americans and Native Americans in the late 1700s. The college today has an acceptance rate of 60% and is one of the country’s few colleges with no application fees.

17) Dickinson College

Originally known as the Carlisle Grammar School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Dickinson College was founded in 1773 by the Pennsylvania legislature. In 1783, Benjamin Rush, who signed the Declaration of Independence, changed the school into Dickinson College. Now one of America’s oldest colleges, Dickinson College is one of the best colleges for international business and has an acceptance rate of 48%.

18) Hampden-Sydney College

Hampden-Sydney College is one of the last remaining men’s colleges in the US. Founded in 1775 by Samuel Stanhope Smith, the college was also the last college founded before the American Revolution. You might recognize some of their famous alumni who had helped shape American history: Patrick Henry and James Madison. Today, Hampden-Sydney College has an acceptance rate of 47% and is one of the American colleges with no application fees.

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19) Transylvania University

Transylvania University is one of America’s oldest colleges and was founded in 1780 by the Virginia Assembly. You might not have heard of Transylvania University as much as the Ivy League schools. However, Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky was the alma mater to US vice presidents, Supreme Court justices, and prominent government figures. It was also the first American college west of the Allegheny Mountains.

20) Washington and Jefferson College

In 1781, three Princeton graduates founded Washington and Jefferson College with three log cabin schools. The schools were merged together during the Civil War to become the liberal arts college it is today. Washington and Jefferson College currently has a 47% acceptance rate and once appeared in the 1922 Rose Bowl.

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21) University of Georgia

The University of Georgia was founded in 1785 by the Georgia General Assembly and is one of the oldest US colleges. It is also the country’s very first state-chartered university, and the University of Georgia was not officially established until 1801. Today, the university has an acceptance rate of 56%, 17 schools and colleges, and one of the best law schools in Georgia.

22) University of Pittsburgh

Founded in 1787 by Hugh Henry Brackenridge, the University of Pittsburgh was originally founded as Pittsburgh Academy. The university was at first just a log cabin, but within 50 years, it expanded into a multi-story building in downtown Pittsburgh. Now the university has an acceptance rate of 53% and was the alma mater to alumni like author Michael Chabon and actor Gene Kelly.

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23) Franklin & Marshall College

Franklin & Marshall College joins the list of oldest colleges in the US as it was founded in 1787 by four prominent ministers. The college was initially named after Benjamin Franklin and it merged with Marshall College in the mid-19th century. Franklin College was initially a co-ed school, until it then became a men’s college. It wasn’t until the late 19th century when it started to admit women. Today, the college has an acceptance rate of 39% and is one of the most expensive colleges in the country.

24) Georgetown University

Located in Washington, D.C., Georgetown University is America’s oldest Catholic and Jesuit college and was founded in 1789 by John Carroll. Although the university was founded in 1789, it wasn’t until 1792 when classes could begin. On the first day of class at Georgetown College in 1792, 40 students showed up. Notable alumni are Jacqueline Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Maria Shriver and others.

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25) University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Chartered in 1789 by the North Carolina General Assembly, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is the 25th oldest American college. It was also the country’s very first public university. And in the 18th century, UNC Chapel Hill was the only American public university to issue degrees. Currently, UNC Chapel Hill has an acceptance rate of 28%.

History in the making – Oldest Colleges in America

Though you might have recognized some, if not all, of these colleges, you might not have known how far these institutions have come. Considering the country’s colonial history, it’s certainly an educational experience to read about how these schools have navigated their own path. But more importantly, it’s an exciting opportunity to imagine yourself walking down these halls that have existed for centuries. Perhaps it’ll make you wonder what part you might play in the history of America’s oldest colleges.