Here’s what the oldest colleges in America used to look like — and what they look like today

Founded in 1686, Harvard is the oldest college in the United States.

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Founded in 1686, Harvard is the oldest college in the United States.
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MPI / Stringer / Getty Images

  • The history of higher education in America is older than the Declaration of Independence.
  • The oldest known college in the US that still exists today is Harvard University, which was founded in 1636.
  • Since Harvard’s founding, thousands of other higher learning institutes have been established across the nation.
  • Here’s a look back at Harvard’s history and the histories of the other oldest colleges in America.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

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

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

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Low Library, Columbia University, 1895.
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The New York Historical Society / Getty Images

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.

Source: Columbia


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

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Mike Segar/Reuters

It’s also one of America’s eight Ivy League institutions.

Source: Columbia


9. Washington and Lee University

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The University in 1884.
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Courtesy of “WLU Special Collections

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.

Source: W&L


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.

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Education Images / Getty Images

“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

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Smith Collection/Gado / Getty Images

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.

Source: Princeton, Top Universities


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

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John Greim / Getty Images

Pictured above is a recent shot of Blair Hall, another historical building at Princeton.

Source: Princeton, Top Universities


7. University of Delaware

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Photograph of the Old College area: Men’s Gym (no longer in existence), Recitation Hall, Agricultural Experimental Station (now Recitation Hall Annex), Wood Shop (no longer in existence), Old College Hall, green house (no longer in existence), President Raub’s House (no longer in existence), looking South West. View of Old College buildings from the North East, looking over the tract once used as an experimental farm and later landscaped as a portion of Frazer Field. Circa 1895-1897.
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Courtesy of University of Delaware

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.

Source: University of Delaware


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

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Mathieu Plourde/Flickr/CC 2.0 Attribution

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


6. Moravian College

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Comenius Hall at Moravian College, circa the late 1800s or early 1900s.
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Courtesy of Moravian College

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

Source: Moravian College


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.

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CynthiaAnnF / Getty Images

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

Source: Moravian College


5. University of Pennsylvania

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The University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, circa 1950.
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Frederic Lewis / Getty Images

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.

Source: University of Pennsylvania, University of Pennsylvania


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

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f11photo/Shutterstock

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

Source: University of Pennsylvania, University of Pennsylvania


4. Yale University

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Yale circa 1718.
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MPI / Stringer / Getty Images

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.

Source: Yale


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

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Reuters / Michelle McLoughlin

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.

Source: Yale, Yale


3. St. John’s College

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Alfred Eisenstaedt / Getty Images

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

Source: St. John’s College


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.

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

Source: St. John’s College


2. The College of William and Mary

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The College of William and Mary in the 1900s.
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Bettmann / Getty Images

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.

Source: William & Mary


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.

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William Silver/Shutterstock

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

Source: William & Mary


1. Harvard University

Founded in 1686, Harvard is the oldest college in the United States.

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“1638, Harvard University in the town of Cambridge, established by Puritan leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony settled in New England.”
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MPI / Stringer / Getty Images

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.

Source: Harvard College Handbook for Students


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

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Harvard Business School.
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Pgiam/Getty

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

Source: Harvard College Handbook for Students