Austin College, an independent liberal arts college in Sherman, was established by the Brazos Presbytery of the Old School Presbyterian Church as a men's college and theological school. It was founded at Huntsville by Daniel Baker, James Weston Miller, and William Cochran Blair, who were appointed by the presbytery in June 1849 to select a college site somewhere between the Brazos and Trinity rivers. Huntsville citizens provided $10,000 and five acres of land to secure the location. When the college was incorporated on November 22, 1849, it was granted a charter, still in use today, modeled after the charters of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton universities. The college was named in honor of Stephen F. Austin despite suggestions by the Huntsville Presbyterian Church that it be named San Jacinto College and by others that it be named after Daniel Baker. Baker, known as "the father of Austin College," steadfastly objected to the idea of naming the college for him. Sam Houston and Anson Jones—both presidents of the Republic of Texas—were charter members of the board of trustees of Austin College. The board, which included Abner Smith Lipscomb and Henderson King Yoakum in its membership, was appointed in 1849, met for the first time on April 5, 1850, and selected Samuel McKinney as president and Baker as agent. Baker traveled over the settled districts of Texas and over much of the United States raising funds for the college. The school began operating in the fall of 1850, and the Masonic lodge at Huntsville laid the cornerstone of Austin Hall on June 24, 1851. Baker served as president from 1853 until his death in 1857. For a year after his death the college did not have a leader, and even closed for the fall semester of 1858. In general, however, Austin College was prosperous and well patronized until the Civil War and Reconstruction periods, when it lost enrollment and suffered financially. In 1876 the Texas Synod of the Presbyterian Church, United States, decided to move the college to Sherman, where the first college building was completed and fifty-three students were enrolled in 1878.
After 1878 Austin College grew slowly but steadily until a fire set by a homesick prep-school student destroyed the main building in 1913. The college recovered when citizens of Sherman contributed $50,000 for a new library and auditorium. The school became coeducational in 1918. After 1930 it was strengthened by its consolidation with Texas Presbyterian College at Milford and financial assistance from Sherman citizens. Austin College has had its most dynamic period of growth in students, endowment, and campus facilities since 1950. The presidents of Austin College succeeding McKinney and Baker were Rufus W. Bailey, Samuel M. Luckett, K. B. Boude, E. P. Palmer, Donald MacGregor, Thornton R. Sampson, Thomas Stone Clyce, E. B. Tucker, W. B. Guerrant, John D. Moseley, and Harry E. Smith.
Students at Austin College reside and attend courses on a beautifully landscaped sixty-acre campus with a mixture of old and new facilities. During the 1983–84 academic year, the college employed 265 persons, 107 of whom were faculty members. In addition to liberal arts studies in twenty-seven areas, Austin College offers preprofessional programs in engineering, business, health sciences, law, theology and church vocations, and teaching. The Austin Teacher Program is a five-year plan that leads to a bachelor's degree in an undergraduate field and a master's in teacher education. Unusual educational opportunities include January Term, which involves students in projects and experiences outside their field of concentration; Field Studies, which allows participation in off-campus projects; Washington Semester, in which students spend a semester in Washington, D.C.; Study Abroad, which allows students to spend either a semester or a year attending college in a foreign nation; and the Social Science Laboratory, which involves fieldwork in the local community. In 1984, $5 million was raised for a new library after a $1 million challenge grant. The Abell Library building, completed in October 1986, held more than 185,000 volumes and had subscriptions to some 850 periodicals in 2000. After a twenty-year delay the Carruth Administration building received a $1.3 million renovation, completed in October 1987. A stained glass window of Stephen F. Austin that survived a fire in 1913 was installed in the new library. Austin College had eighty-five faculty members and 1,174 students in the 1992–93 regular term, when Harry E. Smith was president. Oscar C. Page succeeded Smith as president in 1994. The Robert J. and Mary Wright Campus Center was completed in 2000, and the college also operated a recreational facility on Lake Texoma and three environmental research centers in Grayson County. Enrollment in the fall of 2000 was 1,285 with a faculty of 109.