The graduate program can be traced to March 1935, when the State Board of Education opened negotiations with the University of Michigan to give graduate courses on Northern's campus  during the summer. Beginning in the summer of 1938, Northern offered graduate courses under a cooperative plan with the University of Michigan. Under this program, approximately one-half of the members of Northern's faculty were approved by the University of Michigan to teach graduate courses and some 100 courses were offered. Courses were offered by both Northern and Michigan faculty. Students were required to spend a summer on the Michigan campus. For this work, they received a master's degree from the University of Michigan.

Authority to establish an independent program was granted by action of the State Board of Education on Oct. 12, 1957. This authority went into effect on September 1, 1960. By the same action, Central, Eastern and Western Universities were authorized to set up autonomous programs.campus in 1969

Harold M. Dorr and Edgar G. Johnston provided the first graduate training. Albert H. Burrows was the chair of the Departments of Social Sciences and Graduate Studies from 1944-1957. In 1957, Burrows began devoting his time exclusively to expanding the program of graduate studies.

The College of Graduate Studies came under the sole control of Northern in June 1960. In August of 1960, the first master's degree was awarded to Olive Atkins. During the 1960s, graduate courses were offered in such fields as education, biology, English and history. Many of these courses were taught in the summer, with fall and winter courses most often taught by professors to individual students. Graduate degree programs in chemistry, mathematics, secondary education and physical education were authorized in 1968. The chemistry graduate program closed during the 1980s, but was reinstated in 1990. The Art and Design Department's graduate program began in 1970 and ended in 1993 due to funding. The graduate English program began in 1970.

The College of Graduate Studies provides degree programs for teachers, school administrators, public administrators and other professionals; master's degrees in selected academic departments; and post-degree professional development and enrichment opportunities.

Deans: Albert Burrows, 1960-62; Vito Perrone, 1962-69; Lloyd Swearinga, (acting) 1969-70; Roland Strolle, 1970-75; Roy Heath, 1975-80; Jane Swafford, 1980-85; Peter Smith, (interim) 1987-88; Roger Gill, 1988-92; Peter Smith, (interim) 1992-95; David J. Prior, 1995-98; Sara Doubledee, (acting) 1998-2007; Cynthia Prosen, 2005-2010; Terrance Seethoff, 2010-2012, Brian Cherry, 2012-present .

Source: Pages 192-3 of A Sense of Time by Russell Magnaghi.