Oldest public university in the United States
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The title of oldest public university in the United States is claimed by three universities: the University of Georgia, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and The College of William and Mary. Each has a distinct basis for the claim, North Carolina being the first to graduate a class, Georgia being the first created by charter, and William & Mary having the oldest founding date of any currently public university, though it was private for over 250 years.
University of Georgia
Located in Athens, Georgia, the University of Georgia received its charter from the state in 1785, making the University of Georgia the first state-chartered public university in the United States. As a result of this distinction UGA brands itself as the "birthplace of the American system of higher education." A site was selected for the university, and it began admitting students, in 1801. The first graduation was held in a "brush arbor . . . of leafy boughs . . . beneath the trees" in 1804. The first building was completed in 1805.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
The North Carolina Constitution of 1776 provided that “learning . . . be duly encouraged, and promoted, in one or more universities” .  The legislature chartered the University of North Carolina in 1789, and construction on the campus in Chapel Hill began in 1793. The University became the first public institution of higher learning in the U.S. to open its doors in 1795 when it completed construction on its first building, Old East, and admitted its first students. Graduating its first class in 1798, UNC was the only public institution to confer degrees in the 18th century.
The College of William & Mary
Now a public university, The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, was founded by royal charter in 1693, making it the second oldest college or university in the United States, after Harvard University. The college severed formal ties with Britain after the colonies declared independence, but remained private until financial troubles forced its closure after the Civil War. It re-opened in 1888, but continued financial troubles forced it to accept funding from the Commonwealth of Virginia beginning in 1906. It has been public ever since.
- University of Georgia: History
- History of the University of Georgia, Thomas Walter Reed,p. 85-86 (originally 61-62) http://dlg.galileo.usg.edu/cgi-bin/ebind2html.pl/reed_c02?seq=49
- History of the University of Georgia, Thomas Walter Reed, p. 116 (originally p. 90) http://dlg.galileo.usg.edu/cgi-bin/ebind2html.pl/reed_c02?seq=80
- http://www.nhinet.org/ccs/docs/nc-1776.htm See Article. 41
- University of North Carolina -- A Brief History
- Historical Chronology of William & Mary