Alabama is officially nicknamed the Yellowhammer State in tribute to its state bird but its sobriquet as “the Heart of Dixie” is perhaps the more apt descriptor. An anchor of the deep south, Alabama’s educational landscape has historically been defined by agriculture and bible studies. Today, however, Alabama is the site of a varied and thriving higher education system.
Home to 78 colleges and universities—40 public universities and 20 private non-profit institutions—the state can actually trace the roots of its higher education to the days before statehood. Though Alabama became the 22nd state in 1819, the territory’s first plans for the establishment of a “seminary of learning” began in 1818. These early efforts would lead to the 1831 founding of the University of Alabama. The very first students enrolled at the Tuscaloosa-based institution would brave the relative frontier of their fledgling state to travel there, beset as it was by poorly maintained roads, swamps, and malaria.
With more than 36,000 students enrolled as of 2014, UA is the state’s largest campus. It is also, according to U.S. News & World Report, one of the state’s four Top Tier universities, alongside the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), and Auburn University (AU). The last of these, Auburn was founded in 1856 as the East Alabama Male College. Affiliated with the Methodist Episcopal Church, Auburn would actually become the state’s first coeducational four-year school in 1892.
With roughly 140 majors and 300 student-led organizations, Auburn’s 1,800-acre campus is at once one of the best and most affordable college experiences that Alabama has to offer. We would also be severely remiss were we to overlook the proud and permeating tradition of college football that is very much a way of life in Alabama. A fierce cross-state rivalry persists between the Auburn Tigers and the University of Alabama Crimson Tide, both ranked among the Top 20 football programs in the nation. With a seating capacity of 101,821 strong, UA’s Bryant-Denny Stadium is actually the fifth largest arena in the United States.
Of course, gridiron glory is not the only thing that Alabama has to offer its student population. Alabama is home to some of the nation’s finest research institutions as well. Though plans for the University of Alabama were already underway, two institutions actually beat UA to the punch. The University of North Alabama in Florence and Spring Hill College in Mobile both came to be in 1830. In fact, the latter of these is among the oldest Roman Catholic universities in the southeast. Distinguished by its intimate class size and its 12-to-one student-to-faculty ratio, Spring Hill earned a #14 slot on U.S. News & World Report’s 2010 ranking of southern colleges offering both bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
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