As of 2023, there are now about 4,360 colleges and universities in the United States. A college is generally smaller and has a more limited curriculum than a university. It is also less likely to offer graduate degrees or participate in the kinds of advanced research performed at universities. Nevertheless, colleges can still offer a high-quality and challenging academic experience in the areas of their specialty.
Today, colleges are struggling financially and even closing as a result of skyrocketing costs of higher education and the growth of more affordable online education options that soak up students who otherwise might have attended a residential college. Some of the oldest colleges in the United States have survived the ups and downs of our country’s history since colonial times. Check out the slides below to see if your alma mater made the list.
18. Colby College (1813, Waterville ME)
Colby College started as a Christian theological institution but by the end of the 19th century adopted a liberal arts curriculum. Today it enrolls approximately 2,000 students who can choose between 54 majors and 30 minors.
17. Lycoming College (1812, Williamsport, PA)
Lycoming College is affiliated with the United Methodist Church. Its name comes from a Native American word meaning “sandy stream.” Most of the buildings on campus were constructed after 1950 in a pre-Georgian style. The college offers B.A. and B.S. degrees, and professional programs in pre-ministry, pre-vet, pre-law, and pre-med.
16. Hamilton College (1793, Clinton, NY)
Hamilton College is a liberal arts college that started out as the Hamilton-Oneida Academy. It merged with its sister school, Kirkland College, in 1978 and became a coeducational college. The annual enrollment is approximately 2,000 undergraduates in 57 areas of study. Students also have the option to customize interdisciplinary concentrations.
15. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1805, Philadelphia, PA)
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is the oldest art college and art museum in the entire country. It offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine arts. It is a significant repository of American artistic work of the 19th and 20th centuries and has irreplaceable archival materials that are important to art historians.
14. United States Military Academy at West Point (1802, West Point, NY)
If you think The United States Military Academy at West Point looks like a fortress, you nailed it. It was actually built 50 miles north of New York City on the Hudson River as a defensive position on the northern approaches to the city. The Academy educates cadets for commissioning in the United States Army, granting a Bachelor of Science degree. Admission is exclusive, requiring a letter of recommendation from a U.S. Congressman or other high elected official. Famous graduates of West Point include Dwight D. Eisenhower, Buzz Aldrin, Douglas MacArthur, and Robert E. Lee.
13. Middlebury College (1800, Middlebury VT)
Middlebury College was the first operating institution of higher education in Vermont. Although it was loosely connected with the Congregationalist Church, the town council was really the driving force for organizing the college. Middlebury is particularly noted for its foreign language education programs, including full-immersion summer programs that are open to middle school and high school students. Interestingly, the college initiated the tradition of a national Christmas tree at the White House when the college president donated a 48-foot balsam fir for that purpose in 1923, which was lit by President Woodrow Wilson, himself a Vermont native.
12. Hartwick College (1797, Oneonta, NY)
Hartwick College grew out of Hartwick Seminary, the first Lutheran seminary in the United States. Today the college no longer has a religious affiliation. It now offers Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science degrees with a choice of 31 majors and 11 minors. Hartwick also offers an accelerated three-year undergraduate program that has received positive acclaim for its affordability and academic quality.
11. Union College (1795, Schenectady, NY)
Union College was the second institution of higher education founded in New York, after Columbia University. Unlike many early American colleges, Union was started as an ecumenical institution rather than affiliating with one specific Christian denomination. For 175 years it was a male-only institution but began admitting women in 1970. It has 21 academic departments and strongly emphasizes international experience. 60% of the students do some form of study abroad.
10. Bowdoin College (1794, Brunswick, ME)
Bowdoin College developed a reputation early on as a college for young people of prestigious New England families. Its graduates included U.S. President Franklin Pierce and celebrated writers Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin while her husband was teaching at the college. Another famous graduate was Robert E. Peary, who led the first successful expedition to the North Pole. Starting in 2008 the college eliminated student loans and began giving grants to students in financial need to help combat the student debt crisis.
9. Williams College (1793, Williamstown, MA)
Williams College started with a bequest from Ephraim Williams, a colonist killed in the French and Indian War. A significant event in Protestant Christian history happened in 1806 with a spontaneous student prayer event that touched off a revival leading to the American Foreign Mission Movement. This resulted in tens of thousands of young Americans pursuing missionary service around the world. Williams College now offers 36 majors in the arts, humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences. In addition to its undergraduate programs, it offers graduate degrees in economics and art history.
8. York College of Pennsylvania (1787, Spring Garden Township, PA)
York College of Pennsylvania started out as an academy associated with St. John’s Episcopal Church. Today its 3,500 students can choose from 70 majors and can even go on to complete masters and doctoral programs there. York College has been especially noted for its strong programs in sports management, criminal justice, and nursing.
7. Franklin & Marshall College (1787, Lancaster, PA)
Franklin & Marshall College began in 1787 with a large donation by Benjamin Franklin. Classes were offered in English and German so that members of the Pennsylvania Dutch community could attend. Initially, it was a coeducational institution, but soon after the college opened, the policy was changed to permit men only. After 182 years, women were admitted again starting in 1969.
6. Washington College (1782, Chestertown, MD)
Washington College got its start with financial support from George Washington. He also served on the college’s Board of Visitors and Governors. It was the first college to receive a charter after the American Revolution. The history of the college goes back much earlier, though, as it grew out of the 200-year-old Kent County Free School. Today Washington College grants one graduating senior each year the Sophie Kerr Prize, the largest undergraduate literary prize in the country.
5. Washington & Jefferson College (1781, Washington, PA)
Washington and Jefferson College originated with three log cabin schools that merged, and with a later merger of two rival academies in 1865. The original institutions started with the intention of training ministers to spread the Presbyterian faith on the frontier. Today the college offers undergraduate degrees with a strong emphasis on preparing graduates to go on to graduate and professional degree programs at other institutions. Between 85-90% of graduates who apply to such programs receive offers of admission.
4. Hampden-Sydney College (1775, Hampden Sydney, VA)
Hampden-Sydney College was the last college founded in Colonial America before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. One of its most prominent graduates was William Henry Harrison, 9th President of the United States. Students are required to sign an honor code in a solemn ceremony, pledging not to lie, steal, or cheat not only during their college years but for life. Hampden-Sydney has about 1,000 students.
3. Dickinson College (1773, Carlisle, PA)
Dickinson College started in 1773 as Carlisle Grammar School on the Pennsylvania frontier. Founded by Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Constitution, it was the first college formally chartered after the Revolutionary War ended in 1783. One of the College’s graduates was James Buchanan, the 15th President of the United States. In recent decades the college’s finances have improved and it has expanded with new science and math facilities.
2. Salem College (1772, Winston-Salem, NC)
Salem College is the oldest women’s educational institution in the country. The Moravians founded it in 1772 out of a strong conviction that women should have access to education. African American and Native American girls have been accepted to the school since its beginning. Salem College continues as a women’s institution today, although men 23 and older can take continuing adult education classes there. In addition to undergraduate degrees, the college offers two master’s degrees in teaching.
1. St. John’s College (1696, Annapolis, MD)
Originally founded as King William’s School, St. John’s College is a liberal arts college that uses a curriculum rooted in discussion of classic works of Western arts and sciences. The college offers a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts and a master’s degree in liberal arts or in Eastern classics.
Summary of the Oldest Colleges in the United States
|St. John’s College
|Hampden Sydney, VA
|Washington & Jefferson College
|Franklin & Marshall College
|York College of Pennsylvania
|Spring Garden Township, PA
|United States Military Academy at West Point
|West Point, NY
|Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Jorge Salcedo/Shutterstock.com
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