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25 oldest colleges in America

  • 25 oldest colleges in America
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    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. 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 provided education to the nation’s founders. From early colonial colleges all the way to the universities formed just years after the Constitution was written, 153 years separate the oldest school on this list from the 25th spot.

    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. 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.

  • #25. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
    2/ Ildar Sagdejev // Wikicommons

    #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
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    #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 when it came to the election for the general student body.

  • #23. Franklin & Marshall College
    4/ Smallbones // Wikicommons

    #23. Franklin & Marshall College

    Year founded: 1787

    Founded by: Four prominent ministers

    Acceptance rate: 39%.

    Originally named Franklin College in celebration of iconic American thinker Benjamin Franklin, this Lancaster, Pennsylvania 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
    5/ Crazypaco // Wikicommons

    #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 more than 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
    6/ Cassie Wright // Wikicommons

    #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
    7/ Midnightdreary // Wikicommons

    #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, Pennsylvania merged with Jefferson College to become Washington & Jefferson College, a small liberal arts school with more than 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
    8/ TUPictures // Wikicommons

    #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 justices and notable Texan Stephen F. Austin. “Transy” is located in Lexington, Kentucky 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
    9/ MorrisS // Wikicommons

    #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
    10/ Tomwsulcer // Wikicommons

    #17. Dickinson College

    Year founded: 1773

    Founded by: Pennsylvania legislature

    Acceptance rate: 48%.

    The Carlisle Grammar School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania 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 currently offers 44 majors and prides itself as a leader in sustainability education.

  • #16. Salem College
    11/ bnhsu // flickr

    #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. Located in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the school was a trailblazer in early American civil rights with admission granted in the late 1700s to both African-Americans and Native Americans.

  • #15. College of Charleston
    12/ Lkeadle // Wikicommons

    #15. College of Charleston

    Year founded: 1770

    Founded by: Several prominent South Carolinians

    Acceptance rate: 78%.

    The College of Charleston holds the distinction of being the oldest educational institution south of Virginia. While the American Revolution did delay its development, the school officially received its charter in 1785. In 1837, the school became the first municipal college in the nation as the city of Charleston, South Carolina took on the responsibility for operating the institution. It’s now under state control with enrollment increasing more than 1000% since 1970.

  • #14. Dartmouth College
    13/ Kane5187 // Wikicommons

    #14. Dartmouth College

    Year founded: 1769

    Founded by: Eleazar Wheelock

    Acceptance rate: 12%.

    The only non-university member of the Ivy League, Dartmouth College was actually founded for “the education and instruction of Youth of the Indian Tribes in this Land,” as well as young people of other ethnicities. Based in Hanover, New Hampshire, Dartmouth boasts a number of famous alumni throughout its long history, including Daniel Webster, Theodore Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) and poet Robert Frost.

  • #13. Rutgers University
    14/ Tomwsulcer // Wikicommons

    #13. Rutgers University

    Year founded: 1766

    Founded by: Ministers of the Dutch Reformed Church

    Acceptance rate: 60%.

    Rutgers is officially designated as The State University of New Jersey (its home is New Brunswick) and was first chartered as the all-male Queen’s College back in 1766. The name was changed in 1825 to pay tribute to Colonel Henry Rutgers, a Revolutionary War veteran. With an enrollment of almost 70,000 students, Rutgers is one of the largest universities in the United States.

  • #12. Brown University
    15/ chensiyuan // Wikicommons

    #12. Brown University

    Year founded: 1764

    Founded by: Baptist Church Association support

    Acceptance rate: 9%.

    Brown has always prided itself on a spirit of openness and inclusion, as evidenced by the school’s decision to become the first Ivy League school to accept students of all religious persuasions. One of the first universities in New England, the school was initially located in Warren, Rhode Island, but soon moved to Providence in 1770. Media mogul Ted Turner, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and political scion John F. Kennedy Jr. are just a few notable Brown alumni.

  • #11. Columbia University
    16/ JSquish // Wikicommons

    #11. Columbia University

    Year founded: 1754

    Founded by: Royal charter of George II of Great Britain

    Acceptance rate: 7%.

    England’s King George II decreed the creation of King’s College by royal charter in 1754, and eight students attended the first class in what is now Manhattan. By 1767, the school had established the first American medical school to grant the M.D. degree. After the American Revolution, the school reopened as Columbia College, and has since become one of the best-regarded universities in the nation. Columbia is also a partner of Barnard women’s college, and the only Ivy League school located in New York City.


  • #10. Washington & Lee University
    17/ Bobak Ha’Eri // Wikicommons

    #10. Washington & Lee University

    Year founded: 1749

    Founded by: Scotch-Irish Presbyterian pioneers

    Acceptance rate: 19%.

    With a massive gift of $20,000 in 1796, George Washington turned Liberty Hall Academy (founded as Augusta Academy in 1749) into Washington Academy—and subsequently, Washington College. During the 1860s, Southern General Robert E. Lee served as president of the school and lent his surname to create Washington and Lee University. The school still exists in Lexington, Virginia as a small, private liberal arts university.

  • #9. Princeton University
    18/ popejon2 // Wikicommons

    #9. Princeton University

    Year founded: 1746

    Founded by: New Light Presbyterians

    Acceptance rate: 7%.

    While most world-class universities named after cities reside in the major cities of the United States (New York University, University of Chicago and so  on), Princeton University exists in the relatively small New Jersey town of Princeton, which boasts roughly 30,000 full-time residents. The school actually began as the College of New Jersey in 1746, then moved from Elizabeth to Newark in 1747. It was relocated once more to Princeton in 1756, where it’s remained for 262 years.

  • #8. University of Delaware
    19/ Cargoudel // Wikicommons

    #8. University of Delaware

    Year founded: 1743

    Founded by: Francis Alison

    Acceptance rate: 68%.

    The University of Delaware began its existence as a theological school in New London, Pennsylvania. The school moved to Newark, Delaware in the 1760s and was renamed Delaware College in 1843. The University of Delaware now operates five separate campuses across the state, and became the first university in America to offer a study abroad program in 1923.

  • #7. Moravian College & Moravian Theological Seminary
    20/ Jerrye & Roy Klotz, MD // Wikicommons

    #7. Moravian College & Moravian Theological Seminary

    Year founded: 1742

    Founded by: Moravians

    Acceptance rate: 86%.

    Bethlehem, Pennsylvania has been home to both Moravian College & Moravian Theological Seminary for more than 275 years. Not bad for a school started by 16-year-old Countess Benigna von Zinzendorf. While Moravia no longer exists (it was part of what is now the Czech Republic), their culture’s affinity for education continues at this tiny school with fewer than 2,000 undergraduates.

  • #6. University of Pennsylvania
    21/ Kevin83002 // Wikicommons

    #6. University of Pennsylvania

    Year founded: 1740

    Founded by: Benjamin Franklin

    Acceptance rate: 10%.

    Founder Benjamin Franklin would be proud of his legacy with the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school with a stellar academic reputation, especially its globally respected Wharton School of Business. Located in West Philadelphia, the school was originally supposed to be called the Publick Academy of Philadelphia, and went through several names before becoming the University of Pennsylvania in 1791.

  • #5. Washington College
    22/ JERRYE & ROY KLOTZ, M.D.

    #5. Washington College

    Year founded: 1723

    Founded by: Evolved from Kent County Free School

    Acceptance rate: 56%.

    Washington College has resided on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in Chestertown since it was the Kent County Free School. Like many colleges of the day, the institution took the name of General George Washington, who served on the board of the college until 1789 when he was elected first President of the United States. Today, the college serves 1,450 students from 35 states and 40 different countries.

  • #4. Yale University
    23/ Gunnar Klack// Wikicommons

    #4. Yale University

    Year founded: 1701

    Founded by: Clergymen

    Acceptance rate: 6%.

    Now one of America’s most elite universities, Yale was founded in the small town of Saybrook, Connecticut but moved to its true home in New Haven in 1716. Two years later, the school was named Yale in recognition of Elihu Yale, a benefactor who donated books and goods to the nascent college. In terms of famous alumni, Meryl Streep, both Presidents George Bush and cotton gin inventor Eli Whitney all received degrees as Yale Bulldogs.

  • #3. St. John's College - Annapolis
    24/ smi23le // Wikicommons

    #3. St. John's College - Annapolis

    Year founded: 1696

    Founded by: Maryland colony

    Acceptance rate: 87%.

    St. John’s College was founded in 1696 as King William’s School but, transformed into St. John’s College in 1784 when the state of Maryland granted its charter. While the school didn’t emerge into an educational behemoth like some other early American institutions, it has grown to include a second campus in Santa Fe, New Mexico, far from its original Annapolis home.

  • #2. College of William & Mary
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    #2. College of William & Mary

    Year founded: 1693

    Founded by: King William III and Queen Mary III

    Acceptance rate: 33%.

    William & Mary would have claimed the top spot on the list, since it was supposed to open in 1618. Unfortunately, an Indian uprising scuttled the plans and its founders had to settle for 1693 as its founding year with the very first royal charter. The college played an intricate role in the American Revolution, with George Washington himself earning a surveyor’s license from the school at the age of 17. The town of Williamsburg, Virginia, where it resides, took its name from the school (via the British monarch, of course) instead of the other way around.

  • #1. Harvard University
    26/ Daderot // Wikicommons

    #1. Harvard University

    Year founded: 1636

    Founded by: Massachusetts legislature

    Acceptance rate: 6%.

    It’s fairly incredible that Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts is not only the oldest college in America but also widely regarded as the best institution of higher learning in the nation. Harvard alumni live in 190 countries around the world, and its alumni base is so well-known that it counts eight U.S. presidents among its graduates.

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