Religious denominations established most early colleges in order to train ministers. In New England there was an emphasis on literacy so that people could read the Bible. Harvard College was founded by the colonial legislature in 1636, and named after an early benefactor. Most of the funding came from the colony, but the college early began to collect endowment. Harvard at first focused on training young men for the ministry, but many alumni went into law, medicine, government or business. William and Mary College was founded by Virginia government in 1693, with 20,000 acres of land for an endowment, and a penny tax on every pound of tobacco, together with an annual appropriation. James Blair, the leading Anglican minister in the colony, was president for 50 years, and the college won the broad support of the Virginia gentry, most of whom were Anglicans. It trained many of the lawyers, politicians, and leading planters. Students headed for the ministry were given free tuition. Yale College was founded in 1701, and in 1716 was relocated to New Haven, Connecticut. The conservative Puritan ministers of Connecticut had grown dissatisfied with the more liberal theology of Harvard, and wanted their own school to train orthodox ministers. New Side Presbyterians in 1747 set up the College of New Jersey, in the town of Princeton; much later it was renamed Princeton University. Rhode Island College was begun by the Baptists in 1764, and in 1804 it was renamed Brown University in honor of a benefactor. Brown was especially liberal in welcoming young men from other denominations. In New York City, the Anglicans set up Kings College in 1746, with its president Samuel Johnson the only teacher. It closed during the American Revolution, and reopened in 1784 under the name of Columbia College; it is now Columbia University. The Academy of Pennsylvania was created in 1749 by Benjamin Franklin and other civic minded leaders in Philadelphia, and unlike the others was not oriented toward the training of ministers. It was renamed the University of Pennsylvania in 1791. the Dutch Reform Church in 1766 set up Queens College in New Jersey, which later became Rutgers University. Dartmouth College, chartered in 1769, grew out of school for Indians, and was moved to its present site in Hanover, New Hampshire, in 1770.

All of the schools were small, with a limited undergraduate curriculum oriented on the liberal arts. Students were drilled in Greek, Latin, geometry, ancient history logic, ethics and rhetoric, with few discussions, little homework and no lab sessions. The college president typically tried to enforce strict discipline, and the upperclassman enjoyed hazing the freshman. Many students were younger than 17, and most of the colleges also operated a preparatory school. There were no organized sports, or Greek-letter fraternities, but the literary societies were active. Tuition was very low and scholarships were few.

There were no schools of law in the colonies. However, a few lawyers studied at the highly prestigious Inns of Court in London, while the majority served apprenticeships with established American lawyers. Law was very well established in the colonies, compared to medicine, which was in rudimentary condition. In the 18th century, 117 Americans had graduated in medicine in Edinburgh, Scotland, but most physicians learned as apprentices in the colonies. In Philadelphia, the Medical College of Philadelphia was founded in 1765, and became affiliated with the university in 1791. In New York, the medical department of King's College was established in 1767, and in 1770 awarded the first American M.D. degree.

Impact of colleges in 19th century
Summarizing the research of Burke and Hall, Katz concludes that in the 19th century:.

   1. The nation's many small colleges helped young men make the transition from rural farms to complex urban occupations.
   2. These colleges especially promoted upward mobility by preparing ministers, and thereby provided towns across the country with a core of community leaders.
   3. The more elite colleges became increasingly exclusive and contributed relatively little to upward social mobility. By concentrating on the offspring of wealthy families, ministers and a few others, the elite Eastern colleges, especially Harvard, played an important role in the formation of a Northeastern elite with great power.

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