Penn dates its founding to 1740, when a plan emerged to build a Philadelphia charity school that would double as a house of worship.  After construction was underway, however, the cost was seen to be much greater than the available resources, and the project went unfinished for a decade.  Then in 1749, Benjamin Franklin—printer, inventor and future founding father of the United States—published his famous essay, Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth, circulated it among Philadelphia’s leading citizens, and organized 24 trustees to form an institution of higher education based on his proposals. The group purchased a building and in 1751, opened its doors to children of the gentry and working class alike as the Academy and Charitable School in the Province of Pennsylvania. The first commencement took place on May 17, 1757, and graduated a class of seven. Franklin served as president of the institution until 1755 and continued to serve as a trustee until his death in 1790.

Alumni of the College of Philadelphia were instrumental in the development of the nation and played vital roles in the American Revolution. Twenty-one members of the Continental Congress were graduates of the College; nine signers of the Declaration of Independence were either trustees or alumni; and eleven signers of the Constitution were associated with the College. In 1779, Pennsylvania's state legislature decided that the College was a hotbed of loyalism and tried to abrogate its charter. The provost and trustees of the College refused to be unseated. This forced the legislature to transfer the assets and property to a new board of trustees of a "University of the State of Pennsylvania." After a ten-year legal battle, the College was allowed to reopen its doors in its old buildings. Meanwhile, the University continued down the block on Fifth and Chestnut Streets. This situation continued until 1791, when the two merged to form what we now know as the University of Pennsylvania, the first university in the United States.

During Benjamin Franklin's forty years on the board of trustees, his idea of combining practical and traditional education guided the curriculum of the University. Thanks to Franklin, Penn went beyond the traditional classical education and diversified into the sciences, mathematics, history, logic and philosophy. Franklin indicated his philosophy of education when, in establishing the University, he said, "As to their Studies, it would be well if they could be taught every Thing that is useful . . . Regard being held to the several Professions for which they are intended." This emphasis on the practical aspects of education distinguished the University of Pennsylvania from other colleges and universities of the era. The tradition has continued. For example, the first medical school (1765), the first law classes (1850) and the first business school (1881) in America were founded here.

The University arrived at its present location by twice moving west. In 1802, it moved from Fourth and Arch Streets into a mansion on Ninth and Chestnut Streets built for, but never occupied by, the President of the United States. It moved again in 1872 to a ten-acre spot of land located across the Schuylkill River that was purchased for $80,000. That plot of land was in a section called Blockley Township, a semi-rural area known mostly for its alms house and the Hamilton Grange, a farm.

The Pennsylvania courts ruled in 1877 that the University should provide scholarships to young men and "instruction to female students so far as may be convenient and practicable in the University building." Therefore, in 1878, the Towne Scientific School and the Music Department responded by admitting nine women into their programs. The Law School was the first major division of the University to admit women to its courses as degree candidates. The College of Liberal Arts for Women was established in 1933 to provide women with a liberal arts education instead of one designed specifically for teachers. The College for Women merged with the College of Arts and Sciences in 1974, thus forming our modern-day School of Arts and Sciences, which includes the Graduate School, the College of Liberal and Professional Studies and the College of Arts and Sciences.

The College is the largest of the undergraduate schools, enrolling 6,000 of the University's 10,000 undergraduates, and it teaches all of Penn's undergraduates. The study of the arts and sciences provides students with critical perspectives on their world and with the fundamental intellectual skills necessary for engaging it. As Franklin recognized, professional education relies on the sustenance provided by the arts and sciences and could not exist without them. The School of Arts and Sciences remains the heart and the soul of the modern University.


Explore the College

From what you might study to all of the resources and opportunities you’ll encounter, there is so much to know about pursuing a liberal arts education at Penn!  Take our website tour of academic life in the College.