Sam Houston State University, originally Sam Houston Normal Institute, was established by the Sixteenth Texas Legislature, named for Sam Houston, and located at Huntsville in Walker County at the site formerly occupied by Austin College. The first tax-supported, teacher-training institution in Texas, it became the model for others founded later. The opening of the school was due at least in part to a special agent of the George Peabody Fund who came to Texas in the winter of 1878–79 to offer the state financial aid in establishing such an institution. Control of the school was vested in the state board of education, which was authorized to appoint three citizens of Huntsville as a local board of directors. The law establishing the institute provided that two students from each senatorial district and six from the state at large should be admitted upon competitive examination as "state students," whose tuition, board, lodging, and laundry would be paid by the state. These state students obligated themselves to teach in the public schools of their respective districts for as many years as they received such aid. This policy was discontinued in 1910. The school opened on October 10, 1879, under the principalship of Bernard Mallon. During the early years the courses of study emphasized professional subjects and methods of teaching. In 1909 manual training, vocational agriculture, and home economics were added to the curriculum. In 1911 the course of study was expanded to four years, the last two years' work being of college level to give the institution junior college status. In 1915 the curriculum was again extended to include four years of college work leading to the B.A. degree, and in 1919 the first baccalaureate degree was granted. In 1923 the legislature changed the name of the school to Sam Houston State Teachers College. In 1925 the institution was admitted to the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools and subsequently to the American Association of Teachers Colleges, to the Association of Texas Colleges, to intercollegiate athletic conferences, and to associate membership in the American Association of University Women. Offering of graduate courses leading to the M.A. degree was authorized in 1936.
In 1911 control of the college was vested in a normal school board of regents. Extension of the physical assets of the college has accompanied the changes in control and the development in academic rank. In 1936 the Sam Houston Memorial Museum was constructed as a Texas Centennial project. By 1948 the number of academic buildings had increased from one to twenty-five, and the campus had expanded from five to forty-seven acres. An experimental farm of 250 acres, the 630-acre instructional aviation field, the Josey School for Vocational Education, and practice-playing fields and gymnasium were included in the expanded facilities. In 1946 the state acquired for use of the school a former prisoner-of-war camp of 837 acres adjacent to the college community. Property evaluation of the plant in 1948 was $2,417,973; midterm enrollment was 2,410; the faculty numbered 150. Sam Houston State Teachers College added a student union, a music building, a graphic arts building, and a vocational agriculture laboratory to the campus in 1951. An ROTC unit was established at the college in 1952. On April 21, 1954, the institution celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary. By 1960 one quarter of the school's graduates received their degrees in fields outside of education, pointing to the broadening of the college's mission. Likewise the faculty was encouraged to spend more time with research.
By 1964 the college had an enrollment of 5,738 students, a 259-member faculty, a completely air-conditioned plant valued at $20,000,000, and a curriculum that offered nine degrees in twenty-seven subject areas, including four graduate degrees in nineteen areas. Courses and degrees for teachers and administrators at all levels of public schools and junior colleges were offered. Preparation for entrance to schools of medicine, law, engineering, dentistry, and other professions was given. Joint programs in social work and research were presented through the college by the Texas Board of Corrections and the Institute of Contemporary Corrections and the Behavioral Sciences. In 1965 organization of the college into the following six schools was approved: graduate school, school of business and applied arts, school of education, school of fine arts, school of humanities, and school of science. In recognition of the broadened scope of the college, the state legislature changed the institution's name from Sam Houston State Teachers College to Sam Houston State College in 1965 and to Sam Houston State University in 1969, reflecting the increase in the number of graduate degrees awarded in the 1960s. In 1969 enrollment reached 8,594, the faculty totaled 350, and the library contained 306,923 volumes. In the fall term, 1974, student enrollment increased to 10,144. Elliott T. Bowers was president in that year.
In 1994 the university dedicated the Dan Rather Communications Building and a sixty-seven-foot-tall statue of Sam Houston by alumnus David Adickes—the world's tallest statue of an American hero—which overlooks Interstate 45 just south of Huntsville. In the fall of 1998 enrollment was 12,205, with a faculty of 525. The university is divided into four colleges: Arts and Sciences, Business Administration, Criminal Justice, and Education and Applied Science. Eight undergraduate and nine graduate degrees are offered. The Newton Gresham Library contains more than 1.5 million books, bound periodicals, and government documents and is served by fourteen librarians and twenty-seven support staff. Sam Houston is a member of the Texas State University System and is accredited by the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, American Association for Higher Education, American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education, American Association of State Colleges and Universities, American Chemical Society, American Dietetic Association, Association of Texas Colleges and Universities, Association of Texas Graduate Schools, Council of Colleges of Arts and Sciences, National Association of Advisors for the Health Professions, National Association of Schools of Music, National Conference of Academic Deans, National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, Southwest Association of Pre-Law Advisors, Texas Association of Collegiate Education for Business, Texas Council of Collegiate Education for Business, Texas Council of the Arts in Education, Texas Education Agency, Texas Humanities Alliance, College Board, and the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.