The Farmers' High School

Penn State's first name soothed distrust of down-to-earth farmers

The original rules and regulations of the Farmers' High School of Pennsylvania are available in the Penn State University Archives. Credit: Laura Waldhier / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — There is a longstanding myth that Penn State started out as a high school. But the truth is that from the University's founding, in 1855, it was incorporated as an agricultural college with the power to grant baccalaureate degrees.

The fledgling institution's aim was to encourage the application of science to farming. But many farmers distrusted the traditional college curriculum that emphasized the study of rhetoric, ancient languages, philosophy, and other "classical" subjects. To allay these suspicions, the University’s founders named the college the Farmers’ High School of Pennsylvania.

In the new college's first known official seal, the emblems symbolic of literature and the sciences are prominently displayed with symbols of agriculture. Founding President Evan Pugh and the early Trustees, from the beginning, had determined that the academic program would be conducted on a collegiate level.

Credit: Penn State / Penn StateCreative Commons

Encircling the symbols is the inscription "Farmers High School of Pennsylvania." Beneath the symbols is inscribed  "INS. SEP. 1855". It is uncertain what this inscription refers to, however, as the signing of the institution's charter took place on Feb. 22, 1855.

In 1862 the Farmers' High School changed its name to the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania;  shortly thereafter it was designated the Commonwealth's sole land-grant institution. In 1874, it became the Pennsylvania State College. In 1953, President Milton S. Eisenhower requested and gained permission to elevate the school to university status as The Pennsylvania State University.

This iconic image of the unfinished, original Old Main in 1859 is one of the few photographs surviving from that era. Founded in 1855 as an agricultural college, Penn State initially required manual labor of all its students. Credit: Penn State University Archives / Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated April 14, 2016