NB: Many details were culled from the respective linked web pages and assembled here to create an overview.
The history of higher education in the United States is older than the Republic itself. Colonists established our early colleges initially to train clergy and then to prepare lawyers and teachers. It was very much a vocational enterprise.
There are nine institutions typically referred to as the Colonial Colleges. They include seven of the eight “Ivies” (The eighth Ivy, Cornell, was founded in 1865). Rutgers and William and Mary round out the Colonial Colleges and are now public institutions.
Ten other U.S. colleges and universities were also founded before the American Revolution, but chartered after independence. Some were established as colleges and others as academies that later became colleges.
|Name (* denotes Colonial Colleges)||Founding||Historic Affiliation||Original Name|
|Harvard University*||1636||Puritan||New College|
|College of William and Mary*||1693||Church of England||same|
|St. John’s College||1696||Church of England||King William’s School|
|Yale University*||1701||Puritan||Collegiate School|
|Washington College||1723||non-sectarian||Kent County Free School|
|Moravian College||1742||Moravian Church||Bethlehem Female Seminary|
|University of Delaware||1743||Presbyterian||Newark Academy|
|Princeton University*||1746||Presbyterian||College of New Jersey|
|Washington and Lee University||1749||non-sectarian||Augusta Academy|
|Columbia University*||1754||Church of England||King’s College|
|University of Pennsylvania*||1755||non-sectarian||College of Philadelphia|
|Brown University*||1764||Baptist||College of Rhode Island|
|Rutgers University*||1766||Dutch Reformed||Queen’s College|
|College of Charleston||1770||Church of England||same|
|University of Pittsburgh||1770||non-sectarian||Pittsburgh Academy|
|Salem College||1772||Moravian Church||Little Girls’ School|
Early curricula embraced the classical trivium and quadrivium of European models along with heavy doses of Greek, Latin, history, ethics, and sometimes Hebrew. There were no organized athletics, but there were numerous literary societies in which students engaged in debate and discussion, activities that were scarce in early collegiate classrooms. One such society was Phi Beta Kappa, which was established at the College of William and Mary on 5 December 1776. It has become America’s oldest and most prestigious academic honor society.
John Harvard was a British clergyman who immigrated to New England in 1637 and died the following year of tuberculosis. On his deathbed, he bequeathed half of his estate (~$170,000 today) and his considerable library to the newly founded college, which was renamed to honor its first significant benefactor. From these humble beginnings, our oldest college has become one of the world’s leading research universities. Among Harvard’s faculty and alumni are 161 Nobel Laureates; 48 Pulitzer Prize and 18 Fields Medal winners; 375 Rhodes Scholars; 255 Marshall Scholars; and 8 U.S. Presidents. John Winthrop who joined their faculty in 1738 was the first to teach legitimate science laboratories.
William and Mary, the alma mater of Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and John Tyler (George Washington also received his surveyor’s certification there), established graduate programs in Law and Medicine in 1779. The law school is the oldest in the nation. The campus also boasts the oldest building in American higher education, which was designed by the preëminent British architect, Christopher Wren, and constructed in 1695. Due to financial hardships following the Civil War, William and Mary closed in 1882. In one of higher education’s greatest second acts, it reopened in 1888 with support from the Commonwealth of Virginia and became wholly public in 1906.
Yale was founded to train Congregational ministers, and its original curriculum was restricted to ancient languages and theology. Jeremiah Dummer was a leading proponent and supporter of the fledgling Collegiate School. Accounts differ as to whether he or Cotton Mather contacted Elihu Yale, president of the East India Company requesting support. Yale contributed 417 books along with goods that sold for £562. The University adopted Yale’s name in recognition of the gift. In an American Heritage article, John Steele Gordon claims that Dummer was the more deserving of recognition, but that the trustees could not bring themselves to name the institution Dummer College. Yale’s faculty and alumni comprise 65 Nobel laureates, 78 MacArthur fellows, 252 Rhodes Scholars, 123 Marshall Scholars, and 5 U.S. presidents.
Princeton University was initially founded by “New Light” Presbyterians who had been expelled by the Synod of Philadelphia as part of a schism resulting from the Great Awakening. It was tied to disputes over the Westminster Confession, the authority of itinerant ministers, and the training of clergy. Although there was no formal connection, many early supporters of Princeton were affiliated with William Tennant’s Log College, the first theological seminary for Presbyterians in North America. John Witherspoon, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was president of Princeton from 1768 to 1794. He led the university to play an important role in the American Revolution, including hosting the Continental Congress in 1783. Alumni include 2 U.S. presidents and three current members of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Columbia University was established by George II of Great Britain as an Anglican response to the founding of Presbyterian Princeton. It was renamed following the American Revolution, and two of its early trustees were alumni, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay. Columbia’s alumni and faculty include 7 founding fathers, 125 Pulitzer Prize winners (elevated by the Journalism School), 122 members of the National Academy of Sciences, and 4 U.S. Presidents.
Benjamin Franklin founded the College of Philadelphia (later known as the University of Pennsylvania) in 1749, with a purpose and plan he outlined in Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pensilvania:
The Idea of what is true Merit, should also be often presented to Youth, explain'd and impress'd on their Minds, as consisting in an Inclination join'd with an Ability to serve Mankind, one's Country, Friends and Family; which Ability is (with the Blessing of God) to be acquir'd or greatly encreas'd by true Learning; and should indeed be the great Aim and End of all Learning (p. 30).
In 1755, William Smith became the first academic to hold the title of Provost in the U.S. At Penn, Smith introduced the first modern systematic course of study and degree requirements. He later became the first president of Washington College. Penn’s alumni and trustees have included 8 signers of the Declaration of Independence, 7 signers of the U.S. Constitution, 80 members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (co-founded by Franklin and John Bartram), and 2 U.S. presidents.
Although historically connected to the Baptist Church, Brown University was the first North American institution to accept students independent of religious affiliation. One of the three petitioners proposing the establishment of Brown was William Ellery who would later become a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The university is named for the Brown family, major philanthropic supporters, who included slave traders and abolitionists. It is a complex history with which the university continues to wrestle. Brown alumni and faculty include 8 Nobel laureates, 57 Rhodes Scholars, 52 Gates Cambridge Scholars, and 15 MacArthur Fellows.
Rutgers University was founded as Queen’s College in honor of Queen Charlotte of Great Britain. In 1825, it was renamed in honor of Colonel Henry Rutgers, a Revolutionary War hero and significant benefactor of the college. In 1864, Rutgers was made the land-grant college of New Jersey. It became a public institution in 1945. In addition to its original home in New Brunswick, Rutgers has campuses in Newark and Camden.
Dartmouth College was founded by Congregational minister, Eleazar Wheelock, Wheelock had tutored Samson Occom, a Presbyterian minister who became the first Native American to publish in English. This success led Wheelock to establish a school in Connecticut for native students. He secured a charter, with significant help from Occom, to establish Dartmouth to educate Native Americans. The college is named for Lord Dartmouth, head of the College’s original British Board of Trustees who initially opposed the enrollment of non-native students; even so, most of Dartmouth’s students were the sons of colonists. In 1970, Dartmouth established a program dedicated to native recruitment. Since then, over 700 indigenous students have graduated from the college.
In the years immediately following the Revolution, many Founding Fathers played critical roles in the leadership and development of America’s colleges and universities. The creation of the Republic was one of the great experiments of the Enlightenment, and our founders knew that higher education would would be essential in preparing the next generation of leaders to sustain and develop the new nation.