25 oldest colleges in America
Education has always been a cornerstone of the American experience. Founding Father Benjamin Franklin stressed the importance of having a place to teach America’s youth back in 1749. Franklin famously said, "An investment in knowledge pays the best interest." Even before then, the colonists knew that education was the key to the furthering the nascent nation—the first institution of higher education opened its doors on American soil back in the 1600s. In fact, many North American colonies began their own schools, which educated the nation’s founders. These universities played a crucial role in offering opportunities to the masses and striking the match that lit the American Dream. Indeed, several schools on this list owe their creation to serving disadvantaged communities like women, African-Americans, and Native Americans, groups traditionally excluded from higher learning.
This list tracks the history of higher education in the United State of America and lists the 25 oldest colleges in America using data compiled by the education experts at Niche. To qualify for the list, the schools still have to be operating today, although name changes didn’t affect eligibility. While some colleges floundered and went under, this list examines the survivors—colleges that opened their doors centuries ago and haven't shut them yet. From early colonial colleges all the way to the universities formed just years after writing the Constitution, 153 years separate the oldest school on this list from the 25th spot.
Click through to find out which Pennsylvania university received its charter the same year as the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, and which tiny Maryland college started its life as King William’s School. And there's more. Read on to find out which universities were started by English royalty, which university launched America's first study-abroad program, and, of course, learn which college is the oldest higher-education institution in the States.
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#25. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
- Year founded: 1789
- Founded by: North Carolina General Assembly
- Acceptance rate: 28%.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is well-known for its immense success in college basketball over the past few decades, but the school made history for a different reason back in 1789. It was the first public university in the nation, and the only public American university to award degrees in the 18th century. The school got its famous “Tar Heel” nickname from the workers who toiled in the state’s pine forests and walked through the tar produced from burning pine boughs.
#24. Georgetown University
- Year founded: 1789
- Founded by: John Carroll
- Acceptance rate: 17%.
Washington D.C. is home to Georgetown University, the oldest Catholic and Jesuit college in the nation. After John Carroll secured 60 acres for the school in 1789, classes began in 1792 with just over 40 students attending the newly formed Georgetown College. President Bill Clinton attended the school as an undergraduate and was named president of his freshman and sophomore year classes, but couldn’t earn victory in the election for the general student body.
#23. Franklin & Marshall College
- Year founded: 1787
- Founded by: Four prominent ministers
- Acceptance rate: 39%.
Originally named Franklin College in celebration of the iconic American thinker Benjamin Franklin, this Lancaster, Pa. school merged with Marshall College (named for Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall) in the mid-19th century to become Franklin & Marshall College. As Franklin College, the school became the first co-educational college in America all the way back in the 1700s, but soon after became a male-only institution and didn’t go back to admitting women until 182 years later.
#22. University of Pittsburgh
- Year founded: 1787
- Founded by: Hugh Henry Brackenridge
- Acceptance rate: 53%.
Originally founded as the Pittsburgh Academy, Pitt (as it’s now known) encompasses five total campuses with over 36,000 students. The original building was a log cabin, but by 1830 the school had grown to fill a three-story building in downtown Pittsburgh. Among the school’s famous alumni are novelist Michael Chabon, quarterback Dan Marino, and actor Gene Kelly.
#21. University of Georgia
- Year founded: 1785
- Founded by: Georgia General Assembly
- Acceptance rate: 56%.
In 1784, 40,000 acres were set aside for an institution of higher learning by Georgia’s General Assembly, but the University of Georgia wasn’t officially established until 1801 when the final 633-acre parcel was selected in northeast Georgia. The university now boasts 17 schools and colleges. One part of the university that hasn’t changed for 160 years is the cast-iron arch that divides UGA’s Athens campus from the town itself.
#20. Washington & Jefferson College
- Year founded: 1781
- Founded by: Three frontier clergymen
- Acceptance rate: 42%.
Just after the American Revolution, Washington College formed in 1781 by combining three log cabin schools. During the Civil War, the school in Washington, Pa. merged with Jefferson College to become Washington & Jefferson College, a small liberal arts school with over 1,400 students. One of W&J’s biggest claims to fame is an appearance in the 1922 Rose Bowl—and the distinction of being the smallest school to ever play in the game with just 450 students (they played the University of California to a 0-0 tie).
#19. Transylvania University
- Year founded: 1780
- Founded by: Virginia Assembly
- Acceptance rate: 83%.
Not to be confused with Dracula’s alma mater, Transylvania University may not hold the esteem it used to, but it counts a number of famous and influential alumni, including multiple U.S. vice presidents (John Breckinridge and Richard Johnson) as well as Supreme Court Justice and notable Texan Stephen F. Austin. “Transy” is located in Lexington, Ky. and served as the first American college west of the Allegheny Mountains. Today, the school counts fewer than 1,000 students but still enjoys a top 100 ranking among liberal arts schools.
#18. Hampden-Sydney College
- Year founded: 1775
- Founded by: Samuel Stanhope Smith
- Acceptance rate: 47%.
Central Virginia’s Hampden-Sydney College is the last college founded before the American Revolution, which technically makes it a British school. Major American historical figures like Patrick Henry, James Madison, and William Henry Harrison are all affiliated with the school. Hampden-Sydney College is one of only a few higher education schools that are still all-male.
#17. Dickinson College
- Year founded: 1773
- Founded by: Pennsylvania legislature
- Acceptance rate: 48%.
The Carlisle Grammar School in Carlisle, Pa. was the progenitor of Dickinson all the way back in 1773. A decade later, Declaration of Independence signer and physician Benjamin Rush turned the small-town school into Dickinson College on what was then the American frontier, making it the first truly American college. The college offers 44 majors and prides itself as a leader in sustainability education.
#16. Salem College
- Year founded: 1772
- Founded by: Moravians
- Acceptance rate: 60%.
The oldest women’s college in the United States still operates on a single-gender basis nearly 250 years after its founding. In Winston-Salem, N.C., the school was a trailblazer in early American civil rights with admission granted in the late 1700s to both African-Americans and Native Americans.2018 All rights reserved.