Capilano University was founded by the school boards and residents of North Vancouver, West Vancouver and Howe Sound through referendum in 1968.

Classes that first year were held in a small building on the grounds of West Vancouver Secondary School.

Initial enrolment that first year was 784 students. Today, Capilano University has blossomed into a publicly-funded learning institution that serves 8,300 students in for-credit programs and 3,300 in non-credit courses annually. The University has more than 1,000 employees.

In 1973, Capilano University opened its permanent 13.76 hectare (34-acre) campus in the Lynnmour area of North Vancouver. That same year, the University also established a regional centre in Squamish to serve the Howe Sound communities of Squamish, Whistler, Mount Currie and Pemberton. In 1977, Capilano University opened the Sunshine Coast campus in Sechelt to serve the communities of the Sunshine Coast.

In 2008, the provincial government changed Capilano College's designation to Capilano University.