Dear Mr. Mudd: Which School Is Older, Penn or Princeton?

By Spencer Shen ’16

Q: Dear Mr. Mudd,

I have a friend at Penn who claims that his school is older than Princeton. Is he right?

A: The answer to this question depends on what you mean by “older”, but institutional pride can result in tenuous claims for precedence. The University of Pennsylvania currently asserts that it is the fourth oldest college in the United States, placing Princeton in fifth place after Harvard, William and Mary, Yale, and Penn. Its basis for this claim is that it is an outgrowth of a “charity school” founded in 1740, but the school was never operational. Its building was used for religious services until 1749, when it was acquired by Benjamin Franklin and his associates for the purposes of establishing an “academy”, including an agreement to operate a charity school. “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.” The charter for Franklin’s Academy incorporated the text of the previous charity school’s trust verbatim. This adoption of the exact wording of the trust lies at the heart of Penn’s claim to precedence. However, it was not until 1751 that instruction actually commenced and not until 1753 that the “College, Academy and Charitable School of Philadelphia in the Province of Pennsylvania” was chartered.


Click to enlarge graphic.

Penn celebrated its centennial in 1849, and its trustees did not formally accept 1740 as the year of the institution’s founding until 1899. By contrast, Princeton was chartered in 1746 as the College of New Jersey, began to offer instruction in 1747, and moved to Newark later that year. To the south, in Philadelphia, no such signs of higher educational life existed.

This post was originally written by John Weeren (2001) as an FAQ page on our old website. It has been revised and expanded here by Spencer Shen ’16 as part of the launch of our new website.

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