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Southern Illinois Normal University, established in 1869, began instruction in 1874. During its first thirty years, SINU offered a 2-year program in teacher training, but by 1904 students were able to enroll in 4-year degree programs. During the next several decades the school was to undergo gradual changes that would eventually signal its transition from a normal college to a university. In the 1930s, the 2-year teaching programs were discontinued followed in 1943 by the offering of graduate course work. This changing mission was recognized in 1947 when the Illinois General Assembly renamed the institution Southern Illinois University. In 1959 SIU conferred its first doctoral degree.

At the same time that Southern Illinois University was beginning to offer diverse programs at every level, it was also fulfilling its mission to serve the greater southern Illinois area. In 1949 SIU began offering off-campus academic courses in metropolitan East St. Louis, and this initiative led in 1965 to the development of a separate campus in Edwardsville. The two campuses were recognized as separate universities of the Southern Illinois University System in 1969 when they became known respectively as Southern Illinois University Carbondale and Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville.

The most recent chapter in SIUC's history began in 1969 when approval was given to develop schools of law and medicine. The addition of these important professional schools to SIUC adds further diversity to the broad undergraduate and graduate offerings in Agriculture, Business and Administration, Education, Engineering, Liberal Arts, Mass Communication and Media Arts, Science, and Technical Careers.

In keeping with the state's master plan, SIUC's objective is to provide a comprehensive educational program meeting as many individual student needs as possible. While providing excellent instruction in a broad range of traditional programs, it also helps individual students design special programs when their interests are directed toward more individualized curricula. SIUC has a faculty and the facilities to offer general and professional training ranging from 2-year associate degrees to doctoral programs, as well as certificate and non-degree programs meeting the needs of persons not interested in degree education.

At the present time, Southern Illinois University Carbondale has a student enrollment of over 21,000 with about 5,500 full- and part-time employees.