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What Are the Oldest Universities in the USA?

From the beginning, education has been an important part of our country. There are many old universities in the United States that are rich in history–some were founded in the 17th century. Let’s take a look at some of the oldest universities in the USA and learn when, where, and who they were founded by. We also included a few fun facts to share the unique history of each school. 

Top 10 oldest universities in the USA 

Harvard University

  • Year founded: 1636
  • Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • Founded by: Massachusetts Legislature

Harvard University was originally called the “New College,”  which was fitting since it was the first college in the American Colonies. The name was soon changed to Harvard College to honor its first benefactor, John Harvard. John Harvard left half of his estate and his 320-volume scholar’s library to the university within his will. Harvard University is an Ivy League university that graduated eight future presidents of the United States. 

The College of William and Mary

  • Year founded: 1693
  • Location: Williamsburg, Virginia 
  • Founded by: King William III and Queen Mary III of England

The College of William and Mary was named after the British co-rulers King William III and Queen Mary III, who gave the university its royal charter. William and Mary is the second oldest higher education institute in the United States, and the oldest public school. The College of William and Mary is located in the small historic city of Williamsburg, the largest outdoor living history museum in the USA. 

St. John’s College – Annapolis

  • Year founded: 1696
  • Location: Annapolis, Maryland
  • Founded by: The Maryland colony

St. John’s College is a private liberal arts college that was originally founded as “King William’s School,” which was the Maryland colony’s “free school.” Known for its “Great Books” curriculum, SJC graduates the top two percent of students earning PhDs in the humanities. St John’s has a sister campus located in Santa Fe, New Mexico that was founded in 1964. Students enrolled at St. John’s may transfer between campuses to earn their degrees. 

Yale University

  • Year founded: 1701
  • Location: New Haven, Connecticut
  • Founded by: Colonial clergymen

Yale University started out as “Collegiate School,” which was an institution to train students for employment in church and state. In 1777, Yale’s curriculum began to expand to include humanities and sciences. Yale was originally founded in the small town of Saybrook, Connecticut before moving to New Haven, Connecticut  in 1716. Along with Harvard and Princeton, Yale is known as one of the “Big Three” universities in the Ivy League. 

University of Pennsylvania

  • Year founded: 1740
  • Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Founded by: Benjamin Franklin

The University of Pennsylvania was one of the first United States universities to offer both undergraduate and graduate programs. In 1740, Benjamin Franklin founded what was then called the “Publick Academy of Philadelphia” to educate students for business and “publick service” rather than for religious service. Constantly evolving, UPenn was also one of the first institutions to have a medical school in 1765. Today, UPenn has a total of 12 world-renowned undergraduate and graduate schools. 

Moravian University

  • Year founded: 1742
  • Location: Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
  • Founded by: Countess Benigna von Zinzendorf

German Countess Benigna von Zinzendorf was 16 years old when she established the Bethlehem Female Seminary, one of the first boarding schools for young women in the United States. In 1863, the Seminary joined with Moravian College (formally the Boy’s School) to become the Moravian College & Moravian Theological Seminary. In 2021, the Moravian College became Moravian University, which includes the School of Natural and Health Sciences, the School of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, and true to its roots, the Moravian Seminary.

University of Delaware

  • Year founded: 1743
  • Location: Newark, Delaware
  • Founded by: Rev. Dr. Francis Alison

The University of Delaware was originally founded as the “Free School” in New London, Pennsylvania to educate clergy. Since then, UD has changed its name and location several times. Since Delaware was part of the Pennsylvania colony, the University was denied a charter in order to prevent any tension between the University of Delaware and the University of Pennsylvania. In 1765, the school relocated to Newark, Delaware as “NewArk College,” soon to be renamed again to “Delaware College.” In 1921, when the small women’s college joined, the University of Delaware was officially formed. 

Princeton University

  • Year founded: 1746
  • Location: Princeton, New Jersey
  • Founded by: New Light Presbyterians

Princeton University is one of the nine colleges chartered before the American Revolution. Originally founded to train Presbyterian ministers, Princeton still retains some of its historic landmarks, including Nassau Hall.  While Nassau Hall is the Princeton admissions building today, “Old Nassau” served as the capital of the newly formed United States in 1783. Princeton University is one of the eight schools in the Ivy League

Washington & Lee University

  • Year founded: 1749
  • Location: Lexington City, Virginia
  • Founded by: Scotch-Irish Presbyterian pioneers

Washington & Lee University is the ninth oldest university in the United States. W&L is a small liberal arts university focusing mainly on undergraduate education  and a well- regarded law school, The university is named after George Washington and Robert E. Lee due to their contributions to the formation and development of the school. George Washington donated a generous amount of money to the school, while Robert E. Lee was president of the college for five years. 

Washington College

  • Year founded: 1782
  • Location: Chestertown, Maryland
  • Founded by: Evolved from Kent County Free School

Washington College is a small liberal arts school located on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The college took the name of General George Washington (yes, that George Washington!), who served on the board of the College until he was elected as the first president of the United States. George Washington donated not only his name, but also 50 guineas (a “guinea” was a British coin) to found Washington College, the very first college chartered after gaining independence from Britain. 

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Remember – age isn’t everything! If you’re currently in the college application process, we can help you with the other factors to consider in your choices. That includes how many colleges to apply to, how to find safety, reach, and match schools, and when to apply for college. We can also help you decide between Early Decision and Early Action, schedule college visits, and finally, choose a college.

For some help with your application, you can also check out our guides to supplemental college essays and our insider’s guide of what happens inside an admissions office. Also check out our guide to the Common App essay prompts and our tips for successful college applications. Good luck, and make sure that you apply for all the scholarships you qualify for!

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