Although its founding year is 1871, the University in fact has deeper roots tracing from the West Chester Academy, a private, state-aided school which existed from 1812 to 1869. The academy enjoyed strong support from the highly intellectual Chester County Cabinet of the Natural Sciences of the pre-Civil War decades. It was recognized as one of Pennsylvania's leading preparatory schools, and its experience in teacher training laid the groundwork for the normal school years that were to follow.
As the state began to take increasing responsibility for public education, the academy was transformed into West Chester Normal School, still privately owned but state certified. The normal school admitted its first class of 160 students on September 25, 1871. In 1913, West Chester became the first of the normal schools to be owned outright by the Commonwealth. West Chester became West Chester State Teachers College in 1927 when Pennsylvania initiated a four-year program of teacher education. In 1960, as the Commonwealth paved the way for liberal arts programs in its college system, West Chester was renamed West Chester State College, and two years later introduced the liberal arts program that turned the one-time academy into a comprehensive college.
In recognition of the historic merit of the campus, in 1981 the West Chester State College Quadrangle Historic District was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The buildings included in the historic district are Philips Memorial Building, Ruby Jones Hall, Recitation Hall, and the Old Library. Except for Philips, these buildings are all constructed of native Chester County serpentine stone.
West Chester State reached another major milestone with passage of the State System of Higher Education bill. West Chester became one of the 14 universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education on July 1, 1983. Along with its new name — West Chester University of Pennsylvania — the institution acquired a new system of governance and the opportunity to expand its degree programs.