In 1828, the New Paltz Classical School opened its doors on North Front Street, the direct ancestor of the State University of New York at New Paltz. It offered Greek and Latin along with reading, writing, and arithmetic. In 1833, it was reorganized into an academy on Huguenot Street and the banks of the Wallkill River. The academy educated local children until a serious fire in 1884 compelled it to rebuild.
Rather than simply rebuilding, the school shifted its mission, becoming a state normal school that trained teachers for New York State public schools. Even then, New Paltz was innovative; a course of study was available to students interested in subjects beyond teacher training.
Yet another fire destroyed the school in April 1906, and once again it was rebuilt, this time at a new location on a ten-acre hillside plot a mile away. The new building, dedicated in January 1909, still stands as “Old Main.” In 1932, the Lawrence H. van den Berg School of Practice, named for the last Normal School principal and the first New Paltz college president (1923-43) opened. For 50 years, it served as a locus for teacher training and the education of local school children.
The Normal School became an official college with a four-year curriculum in 1938: the State Teachers College at New Paltz. The first bachelor’s degrees were awarded to the 112 members of the Class of 1942, and in 1947 the school began offering graduate studies in education. In 1948, New Paltz became one of the original campuses to join the newly established State University of New York System.
As society changed, the curriculum at SUNY New Paltz changed to meet new needs of New Yorkers. Survey courses in African and Asian cultures were introduced. In 1968, a program in Black Studies was established. Alice Chandler (president from 1980-1996) added professional degree programs in journalism, engineering, business, and nursing. In 1994, the school was renamed once again, as the State University of New York at New Paltz.
Like other SUNYs, New Paltz experienced significant physical expansion during the 1960s and 1970s, with several new buildings constructed to form a modern university campus on 216 acres.
In 1991, a power "spike" resulting from an off-campus traffic accident seriously damaged electrical transformers in five buildings on campus, contaminating them with PCBs. The school wasted no time in summoning county and state health departments for guidance on a massive clean-up. In response to this incident, PCBs have not been used on the campus since 1994.
The Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, which opened in 2001, is one of the largest museums in SUNY, with more than 9,000 square feet of exhibition space in six galleries. The Dorsky's permanent collection comprises more than 5,000 works of American Art (with emphasis on the Hudson Valley and Catskill Regions), 19th, 20th and 21st century photography, metals, and a "world collection" of art and artifacts dating back to ancient times and representing diverse cultures. Through its collections, exhibitions, and public programs, the Dorsky supports and enriches the college’s academic programs, presents a broad range of world art for study and enjoyment, and serves as a center for Hudson Valley arts and culture.
New Paltz has always embraced international education. In 1901, the college welcomed 50 female students from Cuba. Today, the school has a robust and award-winning study-abroad program that offers students the opportunity to study in 120 countries. In 2015, the college received the Heiskell Award from the Institute for International Education, recognizing its success programming to create study-abroad opportunities for economically disadvantaged and historically underrepresented students.
Today, the State University of New York at New Paltz includes the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, the School of Business, the School of Science & Engineering, the School of Fine & Performing Arts, the School of Education, Graduate, Professional and Interdisciplinary Studies, and Continuing and Online Education.
Largely as an outgrowth of a forward-looking, 5-year (2008-2013) SUNY capital plan, the physical campus has improved dramatically in the 21st century, including the construction of new residence halls (2001, 2004, and 2015) and major renovation of existing residence halls; the opening of the Athletic and Wellness Center (2006); renovation of the Student Union Building, including the addition of a now-iconic pyramidal glass “Atrium” (2010); renovation of Old Main (2012), the Sojourner Truth Library (2016) and renovation and repurposing of Wooster Hall (2016); construction of a new science building (2017) and construction of the Engineering Innovation Hub (2019). These changes represent the most significant investment in infrastructure to support the college’s educational mission since the Governor Nelson Rockefeller era in the 1960s and 70s.
Since launching the Hudson Valley Additive Manufacturing Center in spring 2013, the college’s groundbreaking 3D printing initiative has integrated the college’s strengths in engineering, computer science, technology, and the arts. New Paltz has added state-of-the-art 3D printing equipment, created a certificate program in digital design and fabrication, forged public-private partnerships with industry leaders, garnered over $12 million in state and private funding, and promoted collaboration among students, faculty and regional businesses on 3D design projects. In partnership with MakerBot, the leading manufacturer of desktop 3D printers, the college opened the nation’s first MakerBot Innovation Center in 2014.
In June 2016, SUNY New Paltz was the first institution of higher education to be designated a Stratasys-MakerBot Additive Research & Teaching or SMART lab by Stratasys, the largest 3D printer company in the world. At that time, the College also announced the launch of a new, 18-credit minor in digital design and fabrication—the result of a unique partnership between the Schools of Fine & Performing Arts and Science & Engineering to prepare a new generation of students to conceptualize and design for 21st century manufacturing. A new Master of Arts degree in digital design & fabrication received approval in 2021.
Over time, the curricular mission of the school has broadened from the nearly single-track of the Normal School to 143 programs in seven units. All students experience a liberal arts core curriculum coupled with a major in the liberal arts, the arts, the sciences, or a pre-professional offering. All students receiving certification in education must have a liberal arts or sciences major. In 2021-2022, the college added a fully online degree-completion program, a Bachelor of Arts degree in General Studies to reach a new audience in the region and New York State. The college has regularly appeared on Kiplinger’s list of “100 Best Values in Public Colleges,” and continues to climb in U.S. News and World Report and Princeton Review rankings for the best public regional universities in the Northeast. New Paltz ranks in the top 3% nationwide on a social mobility index that measures a schools’ ability to help students – especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds – climb the socioeconomic ladder.
From its inception as the Classical School, SUNY New Paltz has established a reputation for excellence and creativity to serve the educational needs of the Hudson Valley and other regions of New York State, a tradition that continues to this day.