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Princeton University vs. University of Pennsylvania: Which is the older institution?

Institutional pride can result in tenuous claims for precedence, and this is certainly true of the University of Pennsylvania, which believes itself to be the fourth oldest college in the United States. This would place Princeton University in fifth place, after Harvard, William and Mary, Yale, and, of course, Penn. Penn bases its claims on the fact that it is an outgrowth of a "charity school" founded in 1740. The school was never operational, and the building was used for religious services until, in 1749, Benjamin Franklin and his associates acquired it for the purposes of establishing an "academy." "We have bought for the Academy," Franklin wrote on February 13, 1750, "the house that was built for itinerant preaching, which stands on a large lot of ground capable of receiving more buildings." Franklin agreed to operate a charity school as part of his educational initiative and, according to the Princeton University Archivesí Historical Subject File on this topic, "incorporated the language of the trust which bound the previous trustees to institute that charity school (which they did not do) in their charter." It is the verbatim adoption of this trust that lies at the heart of Penn's claim to precedence.†It was not, however, until 1751 that instruction actually commenced and not until 1753 and 1755 that the "College, Academy and Charitable School of Philadelphia in the Province of Pennsylvania" was chartered.

It is significant that in 1849, Penn celebrated its centennial and that it was not until 1899 that Penn's trustees formally accepted 1740 as the year of their institution's foundation. Princeton, in contrast, was chartered in 1746 and began to offer instruction in 1747. To the south, in Philadelphia, no such signs of life existed.

Related Sources

Historical Subject Files Collection, 1746-2005

Additional information on the founding of Princeton University is outlined in the Frequently Asked Question Who founded Princeton University and when?

John Weeren (2001)

Last modified: Tuesday, 24-Apr-2012 14:03:12 EDT