Northern Illinois University Your Future, Our Focus Northern Illinois University Your Future, Our Focus

History and Traditions


Chartered in 1895, Northern Illinois University first opened its doors in 1899 as the Northern Illinois State Normal School solely to prepare college-educated teachers.

Today, NIU is a world-class university that attracts students from around the globe, but we remain deeply committed to providing an excellent and affordable higher education to Illinois families, some of whom have never sent a child to college before.


A demand for more – and better – public schools prompted then-Illinois Gov. John Peter Altgeld to expand the “normal school” system he always had championed.

For the 146 women and 27 men in the institution’s inaugural class, Altgeld Hall must have seemed like something from a dream: A European-style castle built on the vast Midwestern plains for a cost of $230,000.


Over the next 120 years, enrollment grew 145-fold as the campus spread to 755 acres and became home to nearly 60 buildings and 25,000 students at its peak. World War II and the wars in Korea and Vietnam accelerated enrollment as returning veterans put their GI Bill benefits to work.

The school became Northern Illinois State College on July 1, 1955, and Northern Illinois University on July 1, 1957.

The Illinois General Assembly granted NIU its own governing board in 1996. Regional education centers in Hoffman Estates, Naperville and Rockford were built to better meet the needs of residents throughout the university’s vital service region.

Higher Learning Commission
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