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'America's Oldest University': Why Penn Can Make Claim

The University of Pennsylvania was recognized a year before Harvard. Yet Harvard came first. We explain in Part 41 of our Foreign Student Series. Transcript of radio broadcast:

This is the VOA Special English Education Report.

We continue our Foreign Student Series this week with questions from three listeners.

Thu Ya Naing from Burma wants to know how many colleges and universities are in the United States. Alexander Romashchenko in Russia wonders which university in the United States is the oldest. And Mohamad Firouzi in Iran would like to know more about Harvard University.

The National Center for Education Statistics says more than four thousand two hundred colleges and universities award degrees. These include two-year schools as well as four-year schools.

The oldest institution of higher learning in the country is Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was established in sixteen thirty-six as Harvard College. Massachusetts was an English colony at the time.

The school was named for a Puritan religious leader. John Harvard gave the college all his books and half his property when he died.

At first, Harvard had one teacher and nine students. Today it has almost twenty thousand students. Nearly four thousand of them this past year were from outside the United States.

There are fourteen schools at Harvard. They include Harvard College and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Harvard College is the undergraduate division of the university and Radcliffe is a former college for women.

So Harvard came first. Later, in seventeen eighty, the Massachusetts Constitution went into effect and officially recognized Harvard as a university. Some Harvard materials call it America's oldest university.

But the University of Pennsylvania calls itself America's oldest university. Penn officials note that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania recognized their school as a university in seventeen seventy-nine. That was one year before Harvard.

Yet the history gets a little complex. Penn considers its anniversary date to be seventeen forty. That was when the Charity School of Philadelphia was established, though it never opened. Benjamin Franklin later presented his ideas for a learning institution that included the Charity School. It opened in seventeen fifty-one and became the university.

Today, more than twenty-three thousand students attend the University of Pennsylvania. Four thousand of them come from other countries.

And that's the VOA Special English Education Report, written by Nancy Steinbach. Our series about studying in the United States is online at I'm Steve Ember.