Here’s What The Oldest Colleges In America used To look Like — And What They Look Like Today

The history of higher education in America is older than the nation's founding.

The Oldest Colleges In America
Here's What The Oldest Colleges In America used To look Like — And What They Look Like Today

The oldest known college to continuously exist on US soil is Harvard University, which dates back to 1636 — 140 years before the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. In fact, the first images of Harvard are so old, they predate the invention of photography; rather, they’re sketchings of the buildings which stood then, many of which still stand today. 

Since Harvard’s founding, many other postsecondary institutions have been established. Today, there are more than 4,000 degree-granting intuitions in the nation, according to US News & World Report.

Keep reading to learn which colleges are America’s oldest and to see what they looked like centuries ago compared with how they look now.

10. Columbia University

Columbia College

Columbia is located in New York City, New York, and was founded in 1754. Previously known as King’s College, it received a royal charter from King George II of Britain. It was renamed Columbia after the American Revolution.

Columbia is currently ranked as one of the top schools in the nation.

columbia university

9. Washington and Lee University

Washington Lee University

Located in Lexington, Virginia, Washington and Lee University was founded in 1749. It used to be known as Augusta Academy and Liberty Hall, but it was eventually renamed for George Washington (the first benefactor of the school) and for Robert E. Lee, who was president of the university from 1865 to 1870.

As noted in an email to Business Insider, there are apparently no original photographs of Lincoln Hall, as it burned down in 1803 — years before the invention of photography.

Washington And Lee College, Virginia.

“Only a modern rendering and vintage shots of the ruins from around the turn of the 20th century are available,” said Seth McCormick-Goodhart, assistant director of Special Collections and Archives at Washington & Lee.

8. Princeton University

Princeton University

Located in Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton was founded in 1746 as the College of New Jersey. It was originally meant to train ministers by New Light Presbyterians, according to Top Universities.

Princeton University’s oldest building, Nassau Hall, was even the temporary US Capitol in 1783, when Congress held meetings there.

Princeton University

7. University of Delaware

Delaware College

Located in Newark, Delaware, the University of Delaware was founded in 1743 as “Free School.” It was not chartered until after the American Revolution — mostly because Delaware was then part of Pennsylvania, and given that Pennsylvania already had the University of Pennsylvania, they didn’t want a rivalry between the two schools.

Today, the University of Delaware ranks within the top schools in the nation.

university of delaware

University of Delaware tied for No. 91 in US News & World Report’s 2020 ranking of National Universities.

6. Moravian College

Moravian College

Located in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Moravian College was founded in 1742, by 16-year-old Countess Benigna von Zinzendorf.

Moravian started off as the Bethlehem Female Seminary school, which was, at the time, the first and only boarding school for young women in the US.

Moravian College

America’s sixth-oldest college became coed in 1954.

5. University of Pennsylvania

University of Penn

Located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the University of Pennsylvania was founded in 1740 and chartered in 1755. It was founded by Benjamin Franklin and was the first US college to offer both an undergraduate and a postgraduate education.

In 1765, the University of Pennsylvania became the first US college to have a medical school.

university of pennsylvania

Today, it’s ranked No. 16 on US News & World Report’s list of the Best Global Universities.

4. Yale University


Now located in New Haven, Connecticut, Yale was initially established in nearby Saybrook in 1701 as the “Collegiate School.” In 1718, is was renamed after Elihu Yale, a governor of the British East India Company, who had donated a gift to the school.

Yale was once located in Connecticut’s Middlesex and Hartford counties, before moving to the current location in 1716, where it still stands today.


It is currently ranked as the twelfth best college in the world, and was, as Top Universities reports, the first US college to offer a PhD, making it available starting in 1861.

3. St. John’s College

St. John's College

Located in Annapolis, Maryland, St. John’s was established in 1696, making it the third oldest college in the US.

Originally known as King William’s School, the school changed its name in 1784 and is now one of the top liberal arts schools in the nation.

St Johns College

It also has a campus in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

2. The College of William and Mary

College of William and Mary

Located in Williamsburg, Virginia, The College of William and Mary was officially established in 1693. It was named after William III of England and his wife Mary II of England, the reigning monarchs in Britain at that time, who signed the charter calling for a “perpetual College of Divinity, Philosophy, Languages, and other good Arts and Sciences” to be created in the then-British colony of Virginia.

The College of William and Mary was also the first to receive a royal charter from Britain and is the oldest school in the South.

college of william and mary

Today, it’s ranked at No. 40 in the nation and has a total enrollment just under 9,000.

1. Harvard University

Harvard University

Located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard was founded in 1636 and chartered in 1650. It is the oldest known college in the US that still exists today. Pictured above is a rendering of what it looked like in 1638, only two years after it first opened.

Harvard was named for John Harvard, the university’s first benefactor.

Harvard Business School

It has since become not only one of the most prestigious institutions in the country but in the world.


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