Utah History Encyclopedia


By Lynn M. Hilton and Hope A. Hilton
Located in Salt Lake City, Westminster College, originally a mission school of the Presbyterian Church, is a significant part of Utah's history and educational heritage. It first opened in 1875 with sixty-three pupils but grew in spurts to approximately 2,000 student enrollments today. The present campus, located at 1300 East and 1700 South in the Sugar House district, is situated on twenty-seven acres of land and includes fourteen major buildings. Emigration Creek winds through the south end of the property making it one of the most attractive campuses in the state.

The college was first known as the Presbyterian Preparatory School and offered instruction from kindergarten through high school. Three rooms in the old Presbyterian Church at 200 South and 200 East housed the first classes. The curriculum included reading, writing, and arithmetic, as well as Latin, Greek and higher mathematics. From this humble beginning, the school has now emerged as a four-year liberal arts college, fully independent, nondenominational, privately funded and functioning under its own board of directors. It also offers graduate (master's level) programs in business and education.

The founder and first teacher was Dr. John M. Coyer. Students paid a tuition of $30.00. In 1882 the first class was graduated from the "Collegiate Institute" (high school). Coyer was followed in 1885 by Dr. J.F. Millspaugh who increased enrollment to 319. However, when Dr. Millspaugh became Salt Lake City School Superintendent many of the students followed him to the local public schools. At this point, the institute dropped the lower grades and featured a college prep "academy" curriculum (high school) only.

This institution, as was true of most early schools, was plagued by lack of funds, hard times and high costs. Survival and growth was largely due to the devotion of the staff, who remained at their posts even during lean times when part of their salaries were paid "in kind" (food and groceries). In 1895, in return for a $50,000 gift, the school was renamed The Sheldon Jackson College; in 1902 the named finally became Westminster College. At this time, twenty-one acres of the present campus were purchased. Many graduates of the Collegiate Institute, eight to ten persons per year, went on to success at universities and graduate schools in the East. This history of success was evidence of the excellence of the academic program.

Courses at the junior college level were added to the Collegiate Institute in 1897. Fourteen college students enrolled paying $35.00 per year for tuition. At the end of a twelve-year effort, lack of funds and students caused college level courses to be suspended in 1909.

Converse Hall, the first building on the new campus, was completed in 1906. Over the years other buildings have been added, the most impressive of which was the million dollar addition to the Science Building. Classwork at the downtown facilities continued until 1911 when the new campus in Sugar House was sufficiently completed.

The suspension of college level courses lasted for five years. In 1914 the first two years of college work were again offered. Since that time, college enrollments have steadily risen. Most of the graduates in the early years were in public school teaching. The approach of World War II caused a drop in registrations, but the vacant dorms were soon occupied in 1943 with a detachment of U.S. Army pilot cadets who lived at Westminister College but took pre-flight ground school at the University of Utah. This same year the Utah legislature made a requirement that school teachers had to have a bachelors degree.

In order to provide this, Westminster followed to become a four-year college. With this change an internal movement to make the college interdenominational, and later a secular school, was started. At the end of the war enrollment was 171. The first baccalaureate graduates received diplomas in 1946. LDS students accounted for 16 percent of the student body in 1960 but have increased to 44 percent at present.

Many veterans funded by the G.I. Bill came to the campus, enlarging the student body to 318 in 1949. This was the year the Northwest Accrediting Association visited the campus giving full accreditation (with a few conditions) to Westminster as a four-year institution. Academic programs were expanded, summer school was added in 1955, a science curriculum in 1957 and a registered nurses' program in 1966. In 1982 masters' degrees in business and education were offered. Student tuition was increased in 1960 to $600 per year, with 511 enrollments that year.

A sports program at the college had a checkered history. Football was suspended in 1960, but reintroduced five years later; and finally withdrawn again in 1979. On the other hand intercollegiate soccer continues.

Beginning in 1964, funding started from the U.S. government in the form of educational building grants. In 1982 a major faculty reorganization put the college on a solid financial footing. The Presbyterian church formally ended its ownership of the college in 1974. The college currently has an annual budget of $12 million, with tuition charges of $8,000 per student each year. Students from thirty-seven states and twenty-three foreign countries are now enrolled in the school, which is recognized as an excellent liberal arts college and a valued part of Utah's educational community.