The school came into existence in 1636 by vote of the Great and General Court (colonial legislature, second oldest in British America) of the Massachusetts Bay Colony—though without a single building, instructor, or student. In 1638, the college became home for North America's first known printing press, carried by the ship John of London. Three years later, the college was renamed in honor of deceased Charlestown minister John Harvard (1607–1638) who had bequeathed to the school his entire library and half of his monetary estate.
Harvard's first instructor was schoolmaster Nathaniel Eaton (1610–1674); in 1639, he also became its first instructor to be dismissed, for overstrict discipline. The school's first students were graduated in 1642. In 1665, Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck (c. 1643–1666) "from the Wampanoag … did graduate from Harvard, the first Indian to do so in the colonial period."
The colleges of England's Oxford and Cambridge Universities are communities within the larger university, each an association of scholars sharing room and board. Harvard's founders may have envisioned it as the first in a series of sibling colleges on the English model which would eventually constitute a university—though no further colleges materialized in colonial times. The Indian College was active from 1640 to no later than 1693, but it was a minor addition not operated in federation with Harvard according to the English model. Harvard began granting higher degrees in the late eighteenth century, and it was increasingly styled Harvard University, even as Harvard College was increasingly thought of as the university's undergraduate division in particular.[citations needed throughout]
Today Harvard College is responsible for undergraduate admissions, advising, housing, student life, and athletics – generally all undergraduate matters except instruction, which is the purview of Harvard University's Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The body known as The President and Fellows of Harvard College retains its traditional name despite having governance of the entire University. Radcliffe College (established 1879) originally paid Harvard faculty to repeat their lectures for women students. Since the 1970s, Harvard has been responsible for undergraduate governance matters for women; women were still formally admitted to and graduated from Radcliffe until a final merger in 1999.
About 2,000 students are admitted each year, representing between five and ten percent of those applying; of those admitted, approximately three-quarters choose to attend. Very few transfers are accepted.
Midway through the second year, most undergraduates join one of fifty standard fields of concentration (what most schools call academic majors); many also declare a secondary field (called minors elsewhere). Joint concentrations (combining the requirements of two standard concentrations) and special concentrations (of the student's own design) are also possible.
Most Harvard College concentrations lead to the Artium Baccalaureus (A.B.), normally completed in four years, though students leaving high school with substantial college-level coursework may finish in three. A smaller number receive the Scientiarum Baccalaureus (S.B.). There are also special degree programs, such as a five-year program leading to both a Harvard undergraduate degree and a Master of Arts from the New England Conservatory of Music.