Research a Relative's College Days

by Sunny McClellan Morton | Apr 2, 2013

Sunny McClellan Morton

We think of college attendance as a relatively modern phenomenon, and for many Americans, it is. A lot of families celebrate stories of immigrant or indigent ancestors who worked hard (and against the odds) to send the first family member to college. It was a gesture of hope for future generations: an investment meant to lift a family out of working-class poverty and into gentler lives.

Other families have deep traditions of higher learning, with Ivy League-level credentials plastered all over their family trees. Whether your clan boasts pedigreed professors or just a random seminary student, their attendance at an institution of higher learning may mean grade-A genealogical fodder for you. You just need to school yourself about U.S. universities and their records.

History of Higher Education 101

In colonial days, higher education was mostly the privilege of the privileged. Their list of options was much shorter than those of today's students, though. Colonial-era colleges included:

  • New College (now Harvard University), Massachusetts, founded 1650
  • College of William and Mary, Virginia, founded 1693
  • Collegiate School (now Yale University), Connecticut, founded 1701
  • College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), New Jersey, founded 1746
  • King's College (now Columbia University), New York, founded 1754
  • College of Philadelphia (now University of Pennsylvania), Pennsylvania, founded 1755
  • Rhode Island College (now Brown University), Rhode Island, founded 1764
  • Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, founded 1769
  • Queen's College (now Rutgers University), New Jersey, founded 1769

Other schools, like Transylvania University, existed before 1776 but without collegiate degree-granting programs.

As the young country expanded its western horizons, colleges began popping up in frontier towns, sometimes before the towns themselves existed. Many were sponsored by churches and included seminary learning in the curriculum. Some of these schools were short-lived. Those that survived often grew slowly, with setbacks and sometimes even temporary closures during times of war or economic stress.

Most American colleges initially catered to white men, with the notable exception of Oberlin College in Ohio, which admitted women and African Americans from its founding in 1833. Colleges and seminaries for women sprang up in the mid-1800s. Beginning in the 1860s, many male-only institutions began admitting women. Nearly 80 all-black colleges opened in the second half of the 1800s; racial integration at the university level wasn't the norm until well into the 1900s.

What sources can teach you more about your ancestor's college experience? There are several types to look for.


Yearbooks as we know them today began appearing in the 1880s and were common by the early 1900s. (Loose class or team photos may have been taken in pre-yearbook years, which you might find in school or community archives or in published histories.) Yearbooks can confirm a relative's attendance, contain important photographs and reveal extracurricular interests. If you leaf through the book, you can usually get an overall sense of student body demographics, fashions, values, school traditions and current events.

You can find many yearbooks online, but it's smart to contact the university archives first. The archivist will know which years yearbooks were printed. Usually the archives has a full or nearly-complete set of yearbooks, which they may post online. For example, Kent State University lets you download yearbooks from 1914 through 1985 in PDF, EPUB or Kindle format. Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio has a collection of yearbooks dating to 1867 in its digital library.

Otherwise, the Internet is a great place to search for (and inside) old yearbooks. members can peruse digitized college and university yearbooks. "U.S. School Yearbooks" is an database with over 200 million records indexed in junior high, high school and college yearbooks. You can purchase old yearbooks through websites like ThisOldYearbook and eBay, or through used booksellers like AbeBooks.

Campus Publications and Memorabilia

Campus publications and memorabilia can help you learn more about a relative's participation in student leadership, Greek organizations, performing arts, sports and more. Let's say you know your relative played on a campus basketball team. Tell the university archivist the student's name and year of participation. The archivist may help you determine whether the relative played on a competitive university team or simply participated in intramurals. You may be able to request copies of game programs, ticket stubs, team photos, news clippings of games, the season record, and more.

Student and campus newspapers are a hit-and-miss, mostly 20th-century source. You may luck into an article that mentions your relative; more likely you'll learn about daily or weekly doings on campus. Again, check with a university archivist to see if any campus newsletters or newspapers ran during the year(s) your relative attended, and where surviving issues are now. If microfilmed copies are available, request them through interlibrary loan. Otherwise, find out if they are accessible to the public and then travel to the college to read them

Student Records

Student records are potentially the richest college source available on your ancestor, but access can be a problem. Applications, registrations, course schedules, letters of reference, grade reports, disciplinary records, transcripts from previous schools, student work and more may appear in student files.

The release of information in student records is governed by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA). FERPA protects information (both academic and nonacademic) relating to living students. But that doesn't mean your deceased relative's records are available for the asking. Rather, it means the college has the right to set its own rules for release of deceased students' information. Some schools don't release individual records, no matter how old. Others require a waiting period (say, 25 years after the student's death) or proof of death, like a death certificate. Make friends with that university archivist and politely request their policy on releasing an old student record, if it exists. Provide as much information as possible about the person so they are confident they're sending the right records.

Alumni Records

Alumni records may exist separately from student records and may not be protected by FERPA. Here you'll find information submitted by the alumnus after graduation: biographical updates, photographs and more. You may also find news clippings or other memorabilia added to the file by the alumni office. Students who had illustrious careers or remained active in the alumni community are most likely to have interesting alumni files. Contact the school's alumni office for these records.

The Ol' College Try

You may find yourself eventually digging into published histories (of the college, its sports teams or even women's or minorities' education) or contacting the offices of Greek or other collegiate organizations. Or you may find yourself turning to standard genealogical resources--maps, city directories, county histories and the like--to learn more about the school and its neighborhood. Whichever direction your research takes you, you'll emerge well-schooled in an important part of your ancestor's life.

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