Originally known as Southeast Missouri State Normal School, the first classes were originally taught at the nearby Lorimier School until April 1875 when the first normal school building was completed.The Normal building was described by Mark Twain in "Life on the Mississippi": "There was another college higher up on an airy summit—a bright new edifice, picturesquely and peculiarly towered and pinnacled—a sort of gigantic casters, with the cruets all complete." and was replaced in 1906 by Academic Hall, the school's domed landmark building.The physical size of the campus also grew in this same period.In 1956, the institution had ten buildings on campus. Missouri State Normal School—Third District President John Sephus Mc Ghee established the University Schools on June 15, 1896.Minority enrollment included African-American (6%), Hispanic (1%), and Asian (1%).Southeast Missouri State University has had five names in its history, each time attempting to better reflect its mission and identity: Southeast Missouri State University was founded in 1873 when a group of prominent businessmen and politicians successfully lobbied the State of Missouri to designate Cape Girardeau as the home of the Third District Normal School.It was designed by Jerome Bibb Legg, who also designed the St.Louis Exposition and Music Hall, and includes light fixtures from the 1904 World's Fair.
The institution, having started as a normal school, has a traditional strength in teacher education. In Fall 2012, the University had a record enrollment of over 11,000, making it the 8th largest university by enrollment in the state of Missouri and the 6th largest public university.
The recent addition of the River Campus, housing the Holland School of Visual and Performing Arts, has increased the university's commitment to education in the arts. Southeast Missouri State University was ranked 103rd in the Regional Universities Midwest category and 29th among top Midwestern Public Schools category for the 2017 U. In Fall 2013, a record class of over 1,700 freshman students entered the university: 93.1% of students were full-time, 6.9% were part-time.
As a comprehensive institution, the institution offers over 200 areas of study, including undergraduate degrees as well as master's degrees and a cooperative Ed. Female students make up between 57–60% of the student body.
In the 1950s Southeast Missouri State College had an enrollment of approximately 1,600 students and steadily increased to more than 7,000 students in the 1970s due to low tuition costs, aggressive recruiting, and the construction of Interstate 55 between St. The College also moved away from its focus on only training teachers and began to offer courses of study in business, nursing, and the liberal arts.
Due to this expansion of curriculum and student body population, the college officially became Southeast Missouri State University in 1972.By 1975, the number had increased to twenty-two buildings. This allowed prospective teachers to gain real world teaching experience while earning their degrees.