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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course United States: Institutional Records  by Amy Johnson Crow, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).



Report cards, yearbooks, and the dreaded ‘permanent file’. These are what often comes to mind when one thinks about school records. They are just a few of the types of records generated by and for students.

This module will focus upon primary and secondary schools (both public and private), colleges and universities, and specials schools such as state schools for the deaf and the blind.

Brief History of Education in America

Primary and Secondary Schools

A free public education has not always been the right of every American child. Throughout the Colonial and early American periods, schools were almost exclusively private institutions to which parents paid to send their children. These schools were often run by churches or groups of local businessmen.

In the 1830s and 1840s, the common school movement began to take hold in the United States. Although there were some publicly funded schools by this time, they were still not the prevalent form of school. Even when a public school was available, not all children attended. The economic needs of the family—whether working on the family farm or working in a factory—often took priority over educational needs of the children. It was not until 1852 that Massachusetts became the first state with a compulsory school attendance law.

Public education at this point still meant ‘elementary school’. In 1900, only ten percent of American teenagers had attended high school. Most of the high schools were private schools and focused either upon college preparatory courses or a specific trade.

Private and specialized schools continued to thrive in this period. Some were run as ‘for-profit’ entities while others were run as charities. Many schools for females and minorities fell into the latter category.

Higher Education

Like primary schools, most early colleges and universities were religious based. Even today, most colleges and universities in the United States are private, rather than public, institutions. The greatest boon to public higher education came in 1862 and 1890 with the Morrill Acts, which gave states federal land for the establishment of colleges to train agriculturalists and engineers.

State Schools

The early 1800s saw the creation of state schools for the deaf and the blind. Until the early 1900s, these schools were governed by state boards of charities rather than state boards of education. In the 1870s and 1880s states began to require that those with mental illness be removed from infirmaries and poor farms and into their own facilities. Many states took the additional step of separating adults and children with mental illness and created schools for ‘feeble-minded youth’. They were also called ‘training schools’, as the hope was to train students to become productive members of society. These schools for children and young adults with mental illness or developmental disabilities were often more ‘asylum’ than ‘school’. Because of the medical nature of these records, they are often closed to the public.

Some states also had ‘schools’ for youthful offenders, in an attempt to steer them away from their errant ways. Access to school records vary. As mentioned above, the records state schools for the mentally ill are often closed. Public and private schools are becoming more hesitant to release information due to privacy concerns.

The Records


Yearbooks are the most common and easiest to find type of school record. They are wonderful sources for both high schools and colleges. They usually contain pictures of the students, either individually or in classes, or both. If a yearbook contained only the picture of the ancestor, most genealogists would be thrilled with it as a source; however, most yearbooks contain more. Listings for members of the senior class are often more extensive. Often they list club and team participation, hobbies, and plans for the future.

Below is Morris K. Weber’s senior listing from Culver Military Academy.[1] Yearbooks serve as a yearly summary of the school. Bands, clubs, and sports teams are detailed, often including pictures. You will also see below a picture of the 1901 Harvard University varsity football team from the 1902 Harvard University yearbook.[2]

Figure : Senior Listing from Culver Military Academy

Culver Military Academy13V.jpg

Figure: Picture of the 1901 Harvard University Varsity Football Team
Football Team13V.jpg

Alumni Directories

Alumni directories are similar to yearbooks in that they list either all students or graduates of the school. They are different in that they are not compiled at the same time the students are in school. Some directories are published to mark a milestone of the school such as a 50th or 100th anniversary.

Alumni directories can be very detailed. Women are often listed with both their maiden and married names. Most include at least a city of residence (sometimes a complete street address). The Figure below shows a page from the Franklin Township High School’s Graduates Roster. This roster contains information on members of all the graduating classes from 1890 to 1951.

Some alumni directories are in manuscript form, such as on index cards. The index card below is from a set of index cards with information on the high school graduates of Wayne County, Indiana. The card is, in essence, a family group sheet.

Colleges and universities, particularly those on the east coast, have published numerous alumni directories. Some college students join fraternities or sororities. These organizations also publish alumni directories.
Figure : Franklin Township High School’s Graduates Roster

Graduates Roster13V.jpg

Figure: Index Cards, Graduates of Wayne County, Indiana
Index Cards13V.jpg

  1. Roll Call 1916 (Culver, Indiana: Senior Class of Culver Military Academy, 1916), 126.
  2. The Harvard (Class) Album (Cambridge, Massachusetts: by the Senior Class, 1902), 45.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course US: Institutional Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.