In 1895, only two years after the opening of the Cherokee Outlet, the first bill to establish a normal school at Alva was introduced in the territorial legislature. The first effort was defeated; however, the next legislature passed a bill establishing the Northwestern Territorial Normal School at Alva, the second such school in Oklahoma Territory.
In a meeting on August 8, 1897, a newly-formed Board of Regents for Normal Schools named James E. Ament of Illinois as Northwestern's first president. He and two teachers, Mary DeLisle and Sarah Bosworth, comprised the first faculty.
Until a building to house the new college could be constructed, the classes were held in the Congregational Church. The school opened on September 20, 1897, with an enrollment of 58 students. Enrollment reached 166 students by the end of the first year.
By the fall of 1899, the first building, The Castle on the Hill, had been completed and the school was transferred to its present site. The cost of construction of the first building was underwritten by a number of private citizens, since no appropriation for this building had been passed by the legislature when construction began.
From its normal school beginning, Northwestern in 1919 was expanded into a four-year teachers college and was designated at that time as Northwestern State Teachers College. A further major change in the nature and function of the institution came in 1939, when the college was authorized to grant degrees in liberal arts, as well as education. The name was changed to Northwestern State College.
In 1941, a constitutional amendment established the present Oklahoma State System of Higher Education and provided for the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education. All state-supported colleges and universities were placed under the authority of the board in matters regarding curriculum, standards of education and finances. Within the framework of the system, the six regional colleges, including Northwestern, were placed directly under the governance of the Board of Regents of Oklahoma Colleges. Herod Hall
In 1951, the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education authorized Northwestern to offer courses, transferable to the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University, applying toward a master's degree in education. Beginning with the summer term of 1954, Northwestern was authorized to institute a fifth-year program in education leading to a Master of Education degree. In 1978, a fifth-year inter-disciplinary sociology and psychology program leading to a Master of Behavioral Science degree was approved. A nursing program leading to a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree was established in the fall of 1981.
On August 16, 1974, the name of Northwestern State College was changed to Northwestern Oklahoma State University. During its first century, Northwestern has evolved from a normal school preparing teachers for the rural schools and small towns of northwest Oklahoma, into a dynamic institution offering high levels of education and training in numerous vocational pursuits.
As Northwestern prepared to enter its second century, the university expanded its presence in the area. In the spring of 1996, the Second Session of the 45th Oklahoma Legislature passed House Bill 2164, creating Northwestern campuses in Enid and Woodward. These campuses offered their first classes during the 1996-97 academic year. In 2016, the State Regents authorized Northwestern to offer its first doctoral program in nursing practice.