For all intents and purposes, this is where everything started. The Virginia Colony was founded by the London Company in 1607 and was the very first permanent British settlement in the ‘New World.’ As such, Virginia has played a formative role in just about every aspect of this nation’s development, from its political orientation to its agricultural roots. Most assuredly, this pioneering role extended into education. Technically, Virginia was the 10th state to ratify the U.S. Constitution in 1788.
Its tradition of higher education, however, had begun almost a century prior with the 1693 chartering of The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg. This was not only just the second college created in the colonies and the first established in the South, but it is also widely recognized as the birthplace of the college Greek system. When Hellenic scholar John Heath was denied entrance into the school’s Latin-Letter fraternities, he seized the theme of revolution so popular in that year of 1776 and founded the Phi Beta Kappa house. This was the beginning of the modern college fraternity.
Today, William & Mary’s #6 overall ranking makes it one of three Virginia institutions to place among U.S. News & World Report’s Top 25 Public Colleges. The other two are Virginia Tech (#25) and the University of Virginia (#2). Certainly, the fact that the latter public research university is so well-regarded would be welcome news today to its founder, one Thomas Jefferson. Establishing the Charlottesville-based campus in 1819, the Founding Father presided over a great many details in its curriculum and construction.
Among the 25,000 person community’s claims to fame are its continuity during the American Civil War and the fact that it was once forced to expel poet Edgar Allen Poe when a gambling defeat caused him delinquency on tuition payments. Today, there are 40 public colleges or universities in the state of Virginia. Largest among them with roughly 32,000 students apiece are George Mason University and Virginia Commonwealth University. Both are exceeded in enrollment by the two-year Northern Virginia Community College, which claims a roster of just over 41,000.
Virginia is also home to an additional 40 non-profit private universities. Most notable among them is the Hamden-Sydney College, located in a town by the same name. Its claims to fame are the fact that it remains one of only three all-men’s liberal arts colleges in the nation and that it was the final college established before the outbreak of Revolutionary hostilities. Today, the 1200 acre school is home to roughly 1100 students, which amounts to more than an acre per student! This generous endowment of facilities must surely contribute to the school’s #4 overall Forbes ranking among colleges in the South.
Among Virginia’s many additional distinctions in the area of higher education, James Madison University has regularly been ranked as the top regional public master’s program in the South for more than 20 years. Moreover, in addition to being a top-ranked public liberal arts college, the Virginia Military Institute is the oldest state military college in the U.S.
Perhaps the greatest distinction though is Virginia’s exceptional rate of six year graduation. Its measure of 68.4% far exceeds the national average of 56%, and ranks as 4th best in the nation.