The 18 Oldest Universities in the United States

Written by Drew Wood
Published: November 16, 2023
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A university is an institution of higher education that offers undergraduate and graduate degrees, conducts research, and is usually organized into several colleges. The earliest universities in the country are even older than the United States itself. Many of them are now considered among the eight prestigious “Ivy League” institutions. Let us take you on a quick tour of some of the oldest universities in the United States. By the way, don’t be thrown off by the fact that some of them are still called “colleges.” Today, each of these is a university, even though some have chosen to retain their “college” name solely out of tradition.

18. Georgetown University (1789, Washington, DC)

Georgetown University buildings in fall along the Potomac River. Urban scenic panorama in autumn with buildings and recreational facilities.

The academic buildings of Georgetown University sit on a bluff overlooking the

Potomac River.

©Andrei Medvedev/Shutterstock.com

Georgetown University was founded as Georgetown College in Washington, D.C. A Jesuit institution, it is the oldest Roman Catholic higher educational institution in the country. Graduates of Georgetown are heavily represented on Wall Street, in the Foreign Service, and in the U.S. Congress.

17. University of Vermont (1787, Castleton and Burlington, VT)

The Williams Science Hall at University of Vermont (UVM) as the departments of Fine Arts and Anthropology, Burlington, Vermont, USA

Three institutions merged in 2023 to form the University of Vermont.

©Wangkun Jia/Shutterstock.com

The University of Vermont formed in July 2023 as a merger of Castleton University, Northern Vermont University, and Vermont Technical College. So why does it make our list if it just formed this year? Well, that’s because the oldest branch of the University is at Castleton. It started out in 1787 as Rutland County Grammar School, a college-prep institution for young men. Women were admitted in 1823 and became the majority of the students by the Civil War. Today the University is noted for its student activism and progressive initiatives, such as a commitment to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030.

16. University of Pittsburgh (1787, Pittsburg, PA)

Cathedral of Learning, a 42-story Late Gothic Revival Cathedral, at the University of Pittsburgh's main campus in Pittsburgh, USA

The Cathedral of Learning is an architectural landmark at the University of Pittsburgh.

©Mark Zhu/Shutterstock.com

Since its founding in 1787, The University of Pittsburgh has grown into a prominent research institution of over 28,000 students. The 42-story Cathedral of Learning, built in 1921, is the second-tallest academic building in the world after Moscow State University.

15. University of Georgia, (1785, Athens, GA)

arch at university of georgia in athens, ga

This arch is a picturesque landmark at the University of Georgia.

©Sean Pavone/Shutterstock.com

The University of Georgia was the first state-supported university in the country. The main campus is in Athens, and it has additional campuses in Tifton, Griffin, Atlanta, and Lawrenceville.  Since 1990 more Rhodes Scholars have come from the University of Georgia than any other public university in the country.

14. Transylvania University (1780, Lexington, KY)

Main Street in downtown Lexington Kentucky with late afternoon traffic during the weekend

Lexington, Kentucky is the home of Transylvania University.

©Ivelin Denev/iStock via Getty Images

Transylvania University was the first university founded in Kentucky. The institution’s name came from the short-lived Transylvania Colony in central and western Kentucky. Technically, it started out in 1780 as a Virginian institution, as Kentucky would not separate from Virginia for another 12 years. Popularly known as “Transy,” the University has graduated two U.S. vice presidents, two Supreme Court justices, 50 senators, 101 representatives, 36 governors, and 34 ambassadors.

13. College of Charleston (1770, Charleston, SC)

Main Campus of Charleston College, Charleston, South Carolina, USA

The main campus of Charleston College features some strikingly beautiful architecture.

©LouieLea/Shutterstock.com

The College of Charleston is the oldest college in South Carolina and the oldest south of Virginia. Its graduates included three signers of the Declaration of Independence and three signers of the United States Constitution. Although it retains the name “College,” it is a university with seven academic schools, an honors college, and a graduate school.

12. Dartmouth College (1769, Hanover, NH)

Dartmouth College - A view of East Campus from Baker Tower

This is the East Campus of Dartmouth College as viewed from Baker Tower.

©Kane5187, Public domain - License

The founders of Dartmouth College intended it as a school to assimilate Native Americans into Christianity and the English culture. However, for most of its early history, it actually functioned as a seminary to train ministers for the Congregational church. By the 20th century, it began to secularize. Today it is a private Ivy League university, considered one of the most prestigious institutions in the country.

11. Rutgers University (1766, New Brunswick, NJ)

Aerial Sunrise of Rutgers University New Brunswick New Jersey

Number 15 on the list of top public universities in America is Rutgers University.

©FotosForTheFuture/Shutterstock.com

Rutgers University began as “Queen’s College,” an all-male institution. Later, the leadership renamed it after a Revolutionary War hero who made a substantial donation to the school during a financial crisis. It was a private college before becoming the State University of New Jersey after World War II. Today it has four locations around the state. In 2023, U.S. News & World Report ranked it as the #15 top public university in the country.

10. Brown University (1764, Providence, RI)

Brown University

Located in Providence, Rhode Island, Brown University has graduated celebrated leaders.

©iStock.com/tupungato

Brown University is one of eight Ivy League universities in the country. It was the first to accept students of all religions, and in 1891 admitted women. It was one of the first institutions to award doctorates. In 1969 it adopted an open curriculum that gave students broad freedom to design their own courses of study. Brown’s illustrious alumni include Pulitzer Prize winners, billionaires, Supreme Court Justices, Olympic medalists, Rhodes Scholars, and over 100 members of Congress.

9. Columbia University (1754, New York, NY)

Columbia University of New York

Alexander Hamilton attended Columbia University in NY when it was still called King’s College.

©LENS-68/Shutterstock.com

Columbia University was named King’s College in colonial days. One of its most famous students was Alexander Hamilton, who saved the college president from an enraged mob by giving a speech that distracted them long enough for him to escape. After the Revolution, the college was renamed Columbia. It was the first college in the country to grant an M.D. degree. Today it is a prestigious Ivy League institution making significant contributions in high technology. Columbia administers the Pulitzer Prize, considered the highest award for literature, journalism, and music composition.

8. Washington and Lee University (1749, Lexington, VA)

Washington Hall, Washington and Lee University in Lexington

Located in Lexington, VA, this university is named after George Washington and Robert E. Lee.

©Bram Reusen/Shutterstock.com

Washington and Lee University started as Augusta Academy. Later it took the names of two prominent Virginians: George Washington and Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Washington received a gift of stock from the Virginia General Assembly worth $20,000 and regifted it to the college to help it through a period of financial instability. Today, every student receives a tuition benefit of about $1.87 from that original gift – a small but meaningful connection between today’s students and the father of our country.

7. Princeton University (1746, Princeton, NJ)

Princeton, New Jersey - April, 2016: Princeton University is a Private Ivy League University in New Jersey, USA.

Like most colonial colleges, Princeton started as an institution to educate Christian ministers.

©Jay Yuan/Shutterstock.com

Princeton University is an Ivy League institution that makes significant contributions to research in multiple fields of science. Princeton originated as the College of New Jersey, a ministerial training seminary. It changed its name when it moved to Princeton, New Jersey in 1756. Princeton has an endowment of $37.7 billion, making it one of the wealthiest academic institutions in the world.

6. University of Delaware (1743, Newark, DE)

Newark, Delaware.

This university’s Newark location makes it convenient for students in MD, PA, NJ.

©Tudoran Andrei/Shutterstock.com

The University of Delaware started as a free school operated by a Presbyterian clergyman in New London, Pennsylvania that went through several moves and name changes. It relocated to Newark, Delaware in 1765. Today it consists of nine colleges and five schools. It is one of the only colleges in the country with a working farm on its campus, which serves as an outdoor classroom for the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

5. Moravian University (1742, Bethlehem, PA)

Moravian College, Bethlehem Pennsylvania

Originally, Moravian University consisted of two separate schools that later merged.

©Cynthia Farmer/Shutterstock.com

The founder of Moravian University was Countess Benigna von Zinzendorf. The Zinzendorf family were patrons of the Moravians, a pietistic Christian religious sect that emphasized prayer and international missionary work. Originally, it consisted of separate male and female institutions, but they merged in 1954 to form a combined school. The college became a university in 2021. Moravian University has an especially strong music program, which grew out of the religious traditions of the founders.

4. University of Pennsylvania (1740, Philadelphia, PA)

Very old building in University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The architecture of the University of Pennsylvania recalls its venerable history.

©f11photo/Shutterstock.com

The University of Pennsylvania is an Ivy League university that originated in 1740. Great Awakening evangelist George Whitefield started the project as a combined church and school for the poor. Benjamin Franklin intervened to help the institution financially and served as its first president when it officially opened in 1751. Under his leadership, the college moved toward a wider vision of training leaders for academics, business, and government.

3. Yale University (1701, New Haven, CT)

Yale university buildings in spring blue sky in New Haven, CT USA

The first educational institution in the U.S. to grant doctoral degrees was Yale University.

©f11photo/Shutterstock.com

Yale University is one of only nine colleges founded in the colonial era, before American independence. The college started for the purpose of training clergy but broadened and secularized its curriculum over the years. It was the first institution to award a Ph.D. in the country, to three doctoral students in 1861. Today it is one of the most prestigious and exclusive Ivy League universities.

2. The College of William & Mary (1693, Williamsburg, VA)

Wren Hall at William and Mary college in Williamsburg Virginia

Colonial Williamsburg is a brief walk from the College of William and Mary.

©BackyardProduction/ via Getty Images

The College of William and Mary was named for King William III and Queen Mary II of England. It is the 2nd-oldest college in the United States and the 9th-oldest in any English-speaking country. William and Mary is a “Public Ivy” – a public university that offers a quality of education equivalent to one of the original Ivy League universities.

1. Harvard University (1636, Cambridge, MA)

Dunster House, Harvard University

Dunster House at Harvard University, the oldest institution of higher education in the country.

©Jorge Salcedo/Shutterstock.com

Harvard University is the oldest and most prestigious university in the United States. The namesake of the University was Puritan leader John Harvard. The institution started for the purpose of training Congregational church ministers. By the 20th century, it had become a thoroughly secular institution. Today it is a premier Ivy League research university. With an endowment of $50.7 billion, it is the richest academic institution in the world.

Summary of the Oldest Universities in the United States

RankInstitutionDateLocationIvy League?
1Harvard University1636Cambridge, MAYes
2The College of William and Mary1693Williamsburg, VA(Public Ivy)
3Yale University1701New Haven, CTYes
4University of Pennsylvania1740Philadelphia, PAYes
5Moravian University1742Bethlehem, PANo
6University of Delaware1743Newark, DENo
7Princeton University1746Princeton, NJYes
8Washington and Lee University1749Lexington, VANo
9Columbia University1754New York, NYYes
10Brown University1764Providence, RIYes
11Rutgers University1766New Brunswick, NJNo
12Dartmouth College1769Hannover, NHYes
13College of Charleston1770Charleston, SCNo
14Transylvania University1780Lexington, KYNo
15University of Georgia1785Athens, GANo
16University of Pittsburgh1787Pittsburgh, PANo
17Castleton University1787Castleton and Burlington, VTNo
18Georgetown University1789Washington, DCNo

The photo featured at the top of this post is © BackyardProduction/ via Getty Images


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About the Author

Drew Wood is a writer at A-Z Animals focusing on mammals, geography, and world cultures. Drew has worked in research and writing for over 20 years and holds a Masters in Foreign Affairs (1992) and a Doctorate in Religion (2009). A resident of Nebraska, Drew enjoys Brazilian jiu-jitsu, movies, and being an emotional support human to four dogs.

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