The concept of a residential college has existed for centuries. Indeed, the earliest Princeton undergraduates ate, slept, and learned under one roof, that of Nassau Hall, which was the only building on campus at the time. Princeton’s current residential college system is of more recent origin, dating to the 1980s, although the seeds of the system had been planted many years before. University president Woodrow Wilson envisioned groups of undergraduate dormitories with resident faculty, yet no action was taken during his tenure. It was not until 1957 that the predecessor organization to Wilson College was born, as related in the Princeton Weekly Bulletin:
The college evolved from Woodrow Wilson Lodge, which was founded in 1957 by a dozen members of the class of 1959 to provide an alternative to the eating clubs.
Madison Hall, one of the University's dining halls, served as the common dining and social facility until 1961, when the organization moved to the newly completed Wilcox Hall. At that time, it changed its name to the Woodrow Wilson Society.
The society sponsored a variety of educational and social activities, including hayrides, dances, lectures, recitals and foreign language tables. These activities were strengthened by the faculty fellow program, which brought faculty members into the life of the society.
In 1967, Julian Jaynes, then the resident head of the society, proposed to the University that the society become a truly residential entity. Woodrow Wilson College was created the following spring.
Two assistant college heads were appointed as well as resident advisers and academic advisers.
Following the creation of Wilson College in 1968, a similar set-up was created in 1970 with the Princeton Inn (now Forbes) College.
While the advent of coeducation in 1969 led to significant changes in campus housing and social life, Wilson and Forbes remained the only residential colleges for over a decade, each offering housing to undergraduates for four years. The early 1980s saw the establishment of the residential college system as we know it today, with an integration of dining, social, and academic life. Holder and Madison Halls were repurposed as Rockefeller College in the fall of 1982, with Mathey and Butler Colleges joining the fold the following academic year. As the size of the undergraduate student body expanded, Whitman was added as the sixth college, opening in the fall of 2007. With the addition of Whitman, the current system of two-year and four-year paired colleges was established, with the goal of fostering contact among first-year students, sophomores, and upperclassmen, as well as graduate students and faculty.