While it was founded by Freewill Baptists and its articles of incorporation read "grateful to God for the inestimable blessings resulting from the prevalence of civil and religious liberty and intelligent piety in the land, and believing that the diffusion of sound learning is essential to the perpetuity of these blessings," it has been officially non-denominational since its inception. Hillsdale was the first American college to prohibit in its charter any discrimination based on race, religion or sex, and became an early force for the abolition of slavery, and had an extremely high participation in the American Civil War. The second college in the nation to grant four-year liberal arts degrees to women, it established a group of "Women Commissioners" as role models.
In the 1970s, it grew significantly. The U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, now the U.S. Department of Education, "attempted to interfere with the College’s internal affairs, including a demand that Hillsdale begin counting its students by race. Hillsdale’s trustees responded with two toughly worded resolutions: One, the College would continue its policy of non-discrimination. Two, 'with the help of God,' it would "resist, by all legal means, any encroachments on its independence." Litigation over this issue continued until the college lost a Supreme Court of the United States decision in 1984, which was moot due to a change in policy. Hillsdale had announced that rather than complying with unconstitutional federal regulation, it would instruct its students that they could no longer bring federal taxpayer money to Hillsdale. Instead, the College would replace that aid with private contributions. The College does not accept federal or state taxpayer subsidies for any of its operations.
The College, therefore, has a classic conservative policy of avoiding governmental interference. While it is unclear how much influence he had on overall policy, the distinguished conservative historian, Russell Kirk, was a regular part-time lecturer. Kirk was opposed to libertarianism.
All students go through a core curriculum students, based on “modern man’s intellectual and spiritual inheritance from the Judeo-Christian faith and Greco-Roman culture.” Students are conducted systematically through stages of intellectual growth and acquirement in a variety of disciplines, each worthy of study for its own sake.
Non-traditional programs include:
- Interdisciplinary Fields of Concentration & Programs
- American Studies
- Christian Studies
- Comparative Literature
- European Studies
- International Studies in Business & Foreign Language
- Political Economy
- Sociology & Social Thought
- Special Programs
- Herbert H. Dow II Program in American Journalism
- Honors Program
- Visiting Fellows Program
- WHIP (Washington-Hillsdale Internship Program)
There is a considerable degree of interconnection, although no formal policy, among senior faculty and staff at Hillsdale, Ashland University and its Ashbrook Center, the Claremont Colleges, and the Claremont Institute. Hillsdale's president, Larry Arnn, is a trustee and former president of the Claremont Institute, as well as the Henry Salvatori Center of Claremont McKenna College, the U.S. Army War College and the Heritage Foundation. He was also a research assistant to Martin Gilbert, the official biographer of Winston Churchill.
Bruce Sanborn, President of the Claremont Institute, is a Hillsdale trustee.