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What Are America’s Oldest Universities?

By Fiona Mokry
Read time: 5 minutes

A number of American universities are ranked among the top institutions of higher education in the world. They are known for their exceptional quality of educational programs, cutting-edge research and innovation, and lively student life. Many of them also have been around for centuries. In some cases, they were founded by some of the nation’s most influential historical leaders, and in others, they still operate out of some of the country’s oldest buildings. Check out the five oldest universities in America and the histories which make them fascinating places to visit — even if your student days are long behind you.

5. University of Pennsylvania – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Campus building at the University of Pennsylvania
Credit: aoldman/ iStock via Getty Images 

The plans for the University of Pennsylvania date back to 1740 — 36 years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. However, budget challenges stalled the project for nearly a decade. In 1749, founding father Benjamin Franklin banded together 24 fellow Philadelphians with his influential essay “Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth,” which set the project back on track, and the University of Pennsylvania (formerly named the Academy of Philadelphia, and later, the College of Philadelphia) welcomed its first students in 1751.

Today, the university is composed of 12 individual schools, the most famous of which is the Wharton School of Business, recognized as one of the world’s top business schools. Often called Penn for short, the university also goes by another nickname: “Social Ivy,” a nod to the “work hard, play hard” mentality of the student body. But Penn is clearly also serious about academics, offering top-rated graduate programs in education, science, law, and medicine, as well as prestigious undergraduate programs in business, management, marketing, science, and health-related fields. Famous alumni include singer John Legend, businessman Warren Buffett, and former U.S. President Donald Trump. 

4. Yale University – New Haven, Connecticut 

Aerial view of Yale University campus at dusk
Credit: f11photo/ Shutterstock 

The second Ivy League school on this list, Yale University was founded in 1701 in Saybrook, Connecticut, later moving in 1716 to New Haven. Yale boasts a broad range of programs and degrees but is perhaps most renowned for its cutting-edge science research programs and some of the country’s best performing arts and literature programs. 

Yale’s mission statement — “improving the world today and for future generations through outstanding research and scholarship, education, preservation, and practice” — attracts a broad range of students from all corners of the country and the world. The university’s list of famous alumni includes five U.S. Presidents, 19 U.S. Supreme Court justices, 13 living billionaires, and multiple foreign heads of state. 

3. St. John’s College – Annapolis, Maryland, and Santa Fe, New Mexico

Brick campus building at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland
Credit: Images-USA/ Alamy Stock Photo

St. John’s College is a private liberal arts college that was originally founded as King William’s School in 1696. In 1784, the college adopted its current name. Four of the school’s founders — Charles Carroll, Samuel Chase, William Paca, and Thomas Stone — were American patriot leaders who supported the separation of Maryland from Great Britain’s rule, and they ultimately signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. 

Today, students can seamlessly switch between the original campus in Annapolis, Maryland, and a second campus in Santa Fe, New Mexico, that opened in 1964. St. John’s College claims a host of notable alumni, one of which was Francis Scott Key, who wrote his famous poem “The Star-Spangled Banner” while watching the British invade Baltimore’s Fort McHenry in 1814. 

2. The College of William & Mary – Williamsburg, Virginia

Historic building on campus of the College of William & Mary in Virginia
Credit: BackyardProduction/ iStock via Getty Images

The College of William & Mary, the second-oldest college in America, was founded in 1693 by Scottish-born clergyman James Blaire and named for King William III and Queen Mary II of England, who signed the charter for the school. The purpose of the institution was to create a “perpetual College of Divinity, Philosophy, Languages, and other good Arts and Sciences,.” according to the charter. Blaire was named the college’s first president, a position he maintained until his death in 1743. 

While the College of William & Mary isn’t the oldest university in the U.S., it does claim plenty of other superlatives: America’s oldest college building still in use today (the Sir Christopher Wren Building), the first U.S. institution with a royal charter, the country’s first Greek-letter society (Phi Beta Kappa, founded in 1776), the first student honor code, and the first law school in America. Many prestigious students have attended the college over the years, including American Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Tyler, and James Monroe. 

1. Harvard University – Cambridge, Massachusetts 

Aerial view of Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts
Credit: Wangkun Jia/ Shutterstock 

Also a member of the Ivy League, Harvard University is not only the oldest university in America, but also one of the most famous institutions of higher education in the world. The Great and General Court of Massachusetts Bay approved the university’s founding in 1636, and it was originally named New College. The school’s initial purpose was to provide clergy training to the anticipated 17,000 Puritans migrating from England. In 1639, the name was changed to Harvard to honor Reverend John Harvard, a Londoner and Cambridge University alum who willed his library of 400 books and half of his estate to the new college. 

In 1642, Harvard celebrated its first commencement with a graduating class of nine students, who went on to pursue prosperous careers in religion and politics. Famous later Harvard graduates include former U.S. Presidents John Adams, John F. Kennedy, and Barack Obama — as well as influential Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and celebrities such as Natalie Portman, Rashida Jones, Matt Damon, and Mark Zuckerberg. 

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