In 1831, Bishop Edward Fenick established a college called the Athenaeum in Cincinnati. This school was the first Roman Catholic college founded in Ohio. Nine years later, Bishop John Purcell determined that Cincinnati would make a good location for a Catholic university to be run by the Society of Jesus. He proposed that the Athenaeum's property would be a good site for the new university. As a result, in 1840 the Jesuits took control of the Athenaeum, renaming it St. Xavier College in honor of the founder of the Society of Jesus, St. Francis Xavier. The college received its charter from the state in 1842. Students were originally charged forty dollars a year for tuition at St. Xavier.
The first years proved to be very difficult for St. Xavier College. The college's location and its buildings were not adequate, and the living conditions for boarders were poor. There were several debates about closing the college during this period, but ultimately in 1854 the Jesuits decided to end the boarding program and only take students from the Cincinnati area. Throughout the rest of the nineteenth century, the enrollment at the college remained small.
In the early twentieth century, college administrators began plans to enlarge the college. In 1911, they purchased a large plot of land to build a new campus. In 1924, a new dormitory opened, once again allowing students from outside of the Cincinnati area to board on campus. After that point, enrollment at the college began to increase. In 1930, college trustees voted to change the school's name to Xavier University.
As students left college to enroll in the military during World War II, the university once again faced difficult times. Administrators were concerned that the school might have to be closed entirely. Instead, in February 1943, the federal government chose Xavier as the site for Air Force cadet training, which allowed the college to keep its doors open for the rest of the war. Once the war ended, Xavier had the opposite problem. Many veterans took advantage of the G.I. Bill and decided to go to college in the late 1940s. Like many schools, Xavier did not have enough housing available for these students. As a result, the university constructed temporary army barracks to house the influx of students. The university also began offering graduate programs for the first time in 1946.
Originally, the university had only admitted men. This policy had remained in place for more than 130 years, but in the 1960s, trustees began to debate whether or not the school should admit women. Finally, in September 1969, Xavier became coeducational. The university faced other growing pains as well. In 1911, the newly purchased land had seemed adequate for the school's future growth, but in the decades following World War II, Xavier had once again reached its limits. In 1978, the U.S. Shoe Corporation donated some land adjacent to the campus that allowed for further expansion. In addition, Xavier University merged with Edgecliff College, a Catholic College for women, in 1980. While this addition did not expand the size of the campus, it did add a number of educational programs to the university's offerings.