Colonial America – Colonial Colleges: The First Five

Engraving of Harvard College by Paul Revere, 1767

At the beginning of the seventeenth century in England, the university had become an integral institution, instilling Englishmen with rhetoric, logic and the ability to live a learned, pious life. Due to the easy availability of higher learning, a good number of university men were among the first settlers in America, particularly in Puritan New England. By 1648, there were about 130 colonists in New England who had obtained a college degree, and many other colonies, notably Virginia, had a large share of university men. However, there was a lack of educational institutions in the colonies and, prior to 1670, many sons of the settlers returned to England to pursue higher study at Cambridge or Oxford. However, travel to England was risky and expensive, and many a young man turned to apprenticeship for higher education, particularly to study law or medicine. Unfortunately, those who were interested in pursuing a lifetime of divinity had no choice but to pursue a formal higher education, thus providing the impetus for founding American colleges.

Less than 20 years after the first Puritans arrived in Massachusetts, they realized the need to have their own college to provide a literate ministry for future generations. Although founded primarily to teach divinity and heavily influenced by the Puritans, Harvard (and other early colleges) were not one-denominational, nor were they used strictly as seminaries (although, at least in early years, that was their primary objective).


Established in 1636, Harvard was based on the English model of a university but symbolized the first attempt to build a university by an American colony. The college, located in Newetowne (to be named Cambridge in 1638), was named after John Harvard, who bequeathed his entire library and half of his estate to the fledgling school. The first real growth of the school was under Henry Dunster, who was appointed President of Harvard in 1640. During his tutelage, the college established three buildings, a library, and obtained a formal charter granted by the Massachusetts General Court in 1650, which stated that the principle of Harvard was “the advancement of all good literature, arts and sciences’ and the education of English and Indian Youth ‘in knowledge: and godliness'” (Cremin, 213). During most of the seventeenth century, there were anywhere from 20 to 50 students at the college and most freshmen entered at age 16. Although most students were from New England, young men from England, Virginia, Bermuda and New Netherlands also attended. In its single break from the English tradition of education, Harvard granted degrees without the authority of the King of England. A break with the Puritan tradition came in 1708 when John Leverett was elected the first President of Harvard who was not also a clergyman.

Did you know: Harvard’s first scholarship fund was created in 1643 with a gift from Ann Radcliffe, Lady Mowlson.

It did not take long before the Southern colonies felt the need for their own institutes of higher learning. Virginia had previously implemented the Indian College, aimed primarily at educating Native Americans, but this proved a failure after the Indian uprising of 1622. It wasn’t until near the end of the century that a college was founded in Virginia.

The College of William and Mary

Under James Blair, a royal charter was issued in February 1693 to establish “The College of William and Mary,” appointing Blair as the first president. Despite its early success, changes in legislatures, fire and uninterested professors kept the college from truly getting under way until 1726. Blair established many aspects of the college under a Scottish model, such as a two-year system for the bachelor’s degree and a four-year course of study for the Master’s degree. William and Mary was originally envisioned to contain schools of grammar (for boys age 12 to 15), moral philosophy (to study logic, rhetoric and ethics) and natural philosophy (to study physics, metaphysics and mathematics), and divinity (to be completed after the studies in philosophy). After completion of the divinity school, young men were to be ordained into the Church of England. However, at least until the eighteenth century, most young men spent only about a year of study at William and Mary before going on to other professional studies in the other colonies or England. George Wythe became the first law professor in the U.S. in 1779 when he introduced a formal study of law into the college curriculum.

Did you know: The College of William and Mary is the only U.S. institution to have a Royal Charter.


Yale was founded in 1701 as a collegiate school in Killingworth, Connecticut. In 1716, the school was moved to New Haven and was renamed Yale College in 1718 after a donation by Elihu Yale. Like its predecessors, Yale was mainly concerned with providing a supply of learned ministers. It has been estimated that Yale and Harvard graduated approximately 850 ministers in a 40-year period. The campus was laid out to resemble Oxford University in England, and the mission of the college was the “upholding and propagating of the Christian Protestant religion by a succession of learned and orthodox men'” (Cremin, 321). In later years, several colleges would rebel against Yale’s traditionalism.


Partly to provide a new supply of ministers for the Synod of New York and partly in retaliation for Yale’s ultra-traditional approach, a temporary charter was obtained in 1746 for the College of New Jersey by the Presbyterian Synod. Jonathan Dickson was named its first president and moved the school to Elizabeth in 1747. In 1748, a permanent charter was granted and the school moved to Newark and then to New Brunswick. In 1753, the FitzRandolphs deeded ten acres in Princeton to the college and in 1756, Nassau Hall was completed and the College of New Jersey made its final move to Princeton. Not only was this perhaps the most well-traveled college in history, it also marked a first as having admission open to “adherents of all denominations, by dedicating it to the education of man aiming to be useful in other learned professions as well as the ministry” (Cremin, 326).

College of Philadelphia

In 1749, Ben Franklin envisioned a secular college where young men could be trained in both the “practical” skills and the arts. He saw this as a “Publick Academy of Philadelphia” and sought support for its creation in a pamphlet entitled “Proposals for the Education of Youth in Pensilvania.” By 1750, Franklin had appointed a Board of Trustees and a building for the school. Classes began in the winter of 1751 and the school was formally known as the College of Philadelphia in 1755. The Rev. William Smith, Franklin’s appointed provost, designed a curriculum in 1756 which offered “first class instruction in the classics, complements by a wide range of systematic work in rhetoric and philosophy, mathematic and the sciences, and history and politics” (Cremin, 404). In 1765, John Morgan founded the first medical school at the college. In 1779 the school changed its name to the University of Pennsylvania.


In 1704, Governor Lewis Morris of New Jersey began laying plans to finance a college but it wasn’t until 1754 that King’s College was founded in New York City. The college was influenced heavily by the College of Philadelphia in its curriculum, providing both a religious instruction and a well-rounded instruction in the sciences, language, husbandry, logic, math, grammar and other subjects. Although the Anglicans founded the college, religious liberty prevailed. There were eight students in the first class in 1754, mostly from the immediate New York City area. The college strove to “enlarge the Mind, improve the Understanding, polish the whole Man, and qualify them to support the brightest Characters in all the elevated stations in life.” In 1767, King’s College became the first American school to grant the MD degree.