Change in Early Nineteenth-Century Higher Education in New York’s Capital District

by Richard Ognibene (Volume editor)
©2017 Textbook X, 208 Pages


This book on higher education institutional history is unlike any other. It is not a history of a particular school or a group of schools of the same type; instead it describes the emergence of a varied collection of higher education institutions in the same area in a specific time frame. The setting is New York’s Capital District, the cities of Albany, Troy, and Schenectady, primarily during the period from 1790 to the 1850s.
Albany was settled by the Dutch in the early 1600s, and Troy and Schenectady were its frontier outposts later in that century. All three flourished because wealth from river-based trade supported new enterprises and attracted new settlers. By 1810, Albany was one of the nation’s largest cities, and like prosperous cities anywhere, needed knowledgeable leaders and places to educate their children. Consequently, Union College was founded in Schenectady in 1795 and Albany’s Academy and Female Academy in 1813 and 1814. Emma Willard’s Female Seminary relocated to Troy in 1821, and nearby Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute opened in 1824.
Growing communities also need higher quality professional services. The Capital District’s response here was Albany’s Medical College which opened in 1839, its Law School in 1851, and in 1844, the State Normal School to provide teachers for newly established common schools.
This book tells the story of these schools, why they were founded, who made it happen, how they compared to similar institutions elsewhere, and their influence beyond the Capital District.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface (Richard Ognibene)
  • Chapter 1: Nineteenth-Century Schools in New York’s Capital District: An Overview (Richard Ognibene)
  • Chapter 2: Union: The Origin and Development of a Successful Antebellum College (Richard Ognibene)
  • Chapter 3: Albany’s Academies (John T. McClintock)
  • Chapter 4: Emma Hart Willard’s Troy Female Seminary: “The Companions, not the Satellites of Men” (Trudy J. Hanmer)
  • Chapter 5: RPI, Originally The Rensselaer School (S. Michael Halloran)
  • Chapter 6: Staffing the Common School: The New York State Normal School in Albany (Ralph DiMarino)
  • Chapter 7: Emerging Professional Education: Albany Medical College (Vincent P. Verdile / Alan S. Boulos / A. John Popp)
  • Chapter 8: Emerging Professional Education: Albany Law School (Robert Emery)
  • Contributors
  • Series index

← vi | vii →




GlobalFoundries, the second largest chip manufacturer in the world, recently located a new facility in Malta, NY, 20 miles north of Albany. From 2009 to 2015, the company spent $15 billion to construct this manufacturing complex, a project that created 20,000 new construction jobs. GlobalFoundries currently has 3,000 employees at this site with an annual payroll of $350 million (Rulison, 2015). The company’s revenue comes from the sale and development of 14 nanometer chips, but they are ramping up to design and manufacture 7 nanometer chips that increase performance thirty percent. This upgrade will require more construction, more equipment, and more employees (Cooper, 2016a).

As one can imagine, communities would and did vie for this innovation engine of economic development, and the winner turned out to be the Capital District of New York State. Since the Capital District had no reputation as a technology center like Silicon Valley or Route 128 in Massachusetts, why did GlobalFoundries choose to come to that part of New York and generate an almost unbelievable array of economic benefits for the area?

One answer is that various constituencies in the region wanted to create a business and educationally friendly environment to attract technology companies as a way to boost the lagging economy of Upstate New York. A Chamber of Commerce leader coined the phrase “Tech Valley” in 1998 to identify an initiative designed to accomplish that, and then a combination of political, educational, scientific, and business leaders worked for a decade to fund new projects ← vii | viii → and structures and to collaborate with existing resources to create a framework to support ongoing developments in nanotechnology, the technology area that was the focus of their collaboration. A key decision was made to create a base of operation for this activity at the University at Albany, the flagship institution of the State University of New York.

The first notable result in 2002 was to persuade SEMATECH, a global consortium of twelve organizations that do research in nanoelectronics and nanotechnology, to construct two joint research facilities at the University at Albany. With the scientific facilities in place, the University created a companion academic component in 2004 when it launched a College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering that offered undergraduate, masters, and doctoral degree programs in these disciplines. In 2006, GlobalFoundries signed on as the manufacturing component that would take advantage of the new wave of graduates from SUNY’s new college, and those from the nearby Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Wessner, 2013, chapter 7). To enhance the academic and research components in nanotechnology, in 2014, SUNY separated the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering from the University at Albany and created a new, multicampus entity headquartered in Albany called the SUNY Polytechnic Institute.

All this seems like a modern educational story, and it is, but it is also an example of history repeating itself. In the first half of the nineteenth century, prosperity was evident in an area that is now known as New York’s Capital District, the cities of Albany, Troy, Schenectady, and the areas around and between them. In terms of population, Albany was on the list of the ten largest cities in the country, and each city had an assortment of social, economic, cultural, and educational institutions needed to sustain the civil society that had emerged by the early 1800s. Surprisingly, in education, a college came first, followed by quality academies, a scientific institute, and then professional schools to train doctors, teachers, and lawyers. These institutions helped satisfy social needs, but their existence also contributed to the continued growth of the region by supplying the educated citizens required to maintain and then improve the quality of life already established.

The University at Albany was the central institution in the nanotech story told above, but given its history, one would not likely predict that it would become a center for advanced technology research. The University began in 1844 as New York’s first normal school with 29 students training to become teachers. Although the school changed its name several times, teacher education remained its central mission until the 1960s. Between then and now, it became a university with nine schools or colleges, educating 17,000 students who come from every state and 115 nations. The University’s normal school origins are not an embarrassment; its excellence provided a foundation for the distinguished institution that the University at Albany is now. This book is about the origin stories of seven prominent educational institutions in addition to that of the University at Albany. From the ← viii | ix → beginning, they contributed to the well-being of students and residents in the Capital District, and they also helped meet the needs of the areas to which the graduates of those schools migrated.

The schools that are the subject of this book are unusual in a variety of ways, and together they provide a more comprehensive picture of early nineteenth-century educational history than is generally available in one text. Albany Law School and Albany Medical College, for example, reflect the effort to achieve the substantial improvements needed in the practice of those professions. Importantly, they did not fail and disappear, which was often the case with entrepreneurial law and medical “schools” in that era. The Capital District was home to three famous and successful academies, two of which were for young women. Emma Willard’s Troy Female Seminary, and the Albany Female Academy, which, along with Albany Academy, demonstrated that good academy education was equal to that offered in colleges. The story of Union College demonstrates the power of community persistence when seeking to start a school, and how that school from the beginning modeled an evolutionary way in which curriculum could be modernized. Finally there is Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a school that began as an institute offering individual practical scientific courses, but became the leading educational institution in the nation producing academically trained engineers prior to the Civil War.

By mid-nineteenth century, social and economic elites in the Capital District created and supported an array of higher educational institutions that served their children and those from the larger community. This accomplishment from the Revolutionary War era to the Civil War established the Capital District as an educationally rich community, and that assessment is still correct at the present time. The three counties in which Albany, Troy, and Schenectady are located currently have a total population of 625,000. Yet, within these small counties, there are now sixteen higher education institutions: seven colleges, three professional schools, two universities, two community colleges, one accredited online college, and one school that offers only graduate study. That is a lot of brainpower for companies hiring in the Capital District. At GlobalFoundries, for example, 85 jobs were offered to May 2016 college graduates within the three months following their graduation. One of every five employees at GlobalFoundries is a recent college graduate. The company predominately recruits at five collegiate institutions, and three of them are in the Capital District (Cooper, 2016b). As this book will demonstrate, higher education institutions in the Capital District during the first half of the nineteenth century also produced a significant number of graduates who were needed locally, and others who migrated across the country bringing the knowledge they acquired in the Capital District with them. ← ix | x →


Cooper, R. (2016a, September 15). GlobalFoundries will invest billions of dollars to develop next generation of chips. Albany Business Review. Retrieved from http://www.bizjournals.com/albany/news/2016/09/15/globalfoundries-will-make-smaller-chips.html

Cooper, R. (2016b, September 16). From college intern to plum position. Albany Business Review. Retrieved from http://www.bizjournals.com/albany/news/2016/09/16/from-college-intern-to-plum-position.html

Rulison, L. (2015, August 5). Fab 8 focused on supplying smartphone market as construction slows down. Times Union. Retrieved from http://www.timesunion.com/tuplus-business/article/Fab-8-focused-on-supplying-smartphone-market-as-6427826.php

Wessner, C. (2013). Innovation initiatives: Competing in the 21st century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

← x | 1 →


Nineteenth-Century Schools in New York’s Capital District: An Overview



The purposes of education and the schools that provide it evolve over time. Although evolution does not occur in strictly defined historical time blocks, one can usually identify major developments in an era while simultaneously paying attention to similar changes in closely related fields. The emergence and expansion of common school systems, for example, was the main educational development from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the Civil War. At the same time, however, there was significant growth in number and kind of higher and professional educational institutions that helped to shape social and cultural systems that improved the quality of American life. The purpose of this book is to examine the emergence of those higher educational institutions in a specific geographical area, New York State’s Capital District, discuss the distinctive educational contributions they made to that region, the nation, and to the creation of standards for professions that were still in a formative stage. Since higher education requires a foundation, this chapter begins with a brief overview of the common school movement and its impact on New York State and the cities that constitute its Capital District: Albany, Troy, and Schenectady. Later it will provide a brief overview of the institutions that will be discussed in greater detail in the chapters that follow. ← 1 | 2 →


The dame and town schools in the colonial era were supplanted in the pre-Revolution and early republic era by district schools in larger rural areas and Lancastrian schools in urban areas that used a system developed by Joseph Lancaster, an English educator who created a system of mass education in the early 1800s. The supposed virtue of this system was efficiency; older students taught and continuously drilled a large number of younger ones. Literacy and nondenominational moral sensitivity were the primary goals of these schools, and they were not free (Kaestle, 1973). A patchwork of uncertain payment mechanisms limited the number of students who could be educated in these schools and created uncertainty about their continued existence. In 1818, Lancaster came to the United States to visit schools that had adopted his methods and to sell the idea to other communities. His initial visits in late 1818 were to New York, Philadelphia, and Albany. That year, Governor DeWitt Clinton praised the Lancastrian schools in his annual message to the New York Legislature (Reigart, 1916, p. 8).

As the new nation increased in size, economic complexity, and ethnic diversity, these educational arrangements became increasingly inadequate. Indeed, many of the founding fathers had called for publically supported schools from the beginning of our nation’s history, but the opposition to state control and taxation and the tradition of private and often religious schooling were too strong to overcome. As the early decades of the nineteenth century proceeded, the call for a free public school system became stronger and was supported by politicians, especially Whigs and economic elites, who saw the need for better educated workers in growing and increasingly industrialized urban areas. Additionally, the need to establish and maintain social order and the need to enhance loyalty to the nation could be satisfied by common schools designed to accomplish those ends. The means were explicit codes of conduct; lessons that codified spelling, pronunciation, and meaning; stories that taught moral lessons; the use of history and geography in ways intended to increase patriotism; and the inclusion of numeracy skills needed to tell time, count money, and do the arithmetic required for commercial activity.


X, 208
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (November)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2017. X, 208 pp.

Biographical notes

Richard Ognibene (Volume editor)

Richard Ognibene received an Ed.D. in history of education from the University of Rochester. He taught most recently at Seton Hall University and Siena College. Ognibene is editor of A Persistent Reformer: Jonathan Kozol’s Work to Promote Equality in America and author of several chapters related to contemporary school reform.


Title: Change in Early Nineteenth-Century Higher Education in New York’s Capital District
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