CORE was founded in Leuven in 1966 at the initiative of Jacques Drèze, who is considered its founding father, Anton Barten and Guy de Ghellinck. Initially, the center existed within the Catholic University of Leuven. Following its split in 1968 to form the Dutch-speaking Katholieke Universiteit Leuven and the French-speaking Université catholique de Louvain, CORE moved to Louvain-la-Neuve in 1977 to join the latter.

CORE, the creation of which was inspired by the Cowles Foundation as well as the other institutions that Jacques Drèze had visited during his research work in the United States, brought economic modelling to Europe. Being a pioneer in the domain, CORE propelled Belgian and European economic research, which was very "local" at that time, into development. The center modernized it through the economic knowledge and research practices imported from the United States and contributed to its internationalization, while at the same time creating a local economic culture in Europe, e.g., through disequilibrium economics, which can be considered a French ‘trademark’ in macroeconomics. Another element of the continental economic culture was the development of specific research forms, such as research teams, co-authorship and peer review.

In 1966, CORE opened its doors with four academic members and three researchers on the staff. For comparison, the center now hosts around 40 faculty members including emeritus professors, 30 corresponding members as well as over 40 doctoral and postdoctoral researchers.

In 1967, CORE received a five-year grant from the Ford Foundation, which propelled the center into rapid development by attracting faculty members and visitors. These researchers including Gérard Debreu, Truman Bewley, Hildegard Dierker, Birgit Grodal, David Schmeidler, Karl Vind and Werner Hildenbrand gained CORE international recognition in the field of mathematical economics. The time of the Ford grant coincided with the epoch of "Neo-Walrasian" economics at CORE, which also started the differentiation of disciplines. While initially the research fields were integrated, at that time, there appeared the complementary but independent disciplines of mathematical economics, operations research and econometrics. After the division of the disciplines, disequilibrium economics became the major and most influential research area at CORE differentiating the center from the US practices and establishing it as a specific school in macroeconomics.

By 1973, when the Ford grant ended, CORE had expanded its permanent faculty to 21 members with about as many visitors. The maintenance of the center was taken over by the university, supported by external funding through various research contracts with the Belgian government and different organizations. With the disciplines becoming more and more differentiated, mathematical programming and econometrics, initially minor fields, also developed and became important research areas at CORE. Thus, Bayesian econometrics can be considered a trademark of the center, sometimes referred to as the "Belgian Bayesian School".

In 1977, CORE expanded into training activities by the creation of the European Doctoral Program in Quantitative Economics, later joined by the other partners. In 1985, the European Economic Association was created at the initiative of Jacques Drèze (who became its first president), Jean Gabszewicz, Louis Phlips, Jacques-François Thisse, and Jean Waelbroeck.

Today, CORE's major research fields include economics, game theory, operations research, quantitative and economic geography. Its main objectives are fostering quality research, developing networking connections for scientific exchange and collaboration, training young doctoral and postdoctoral researchers as well as making professionals in the public and private sector benefit from scientific knowledge.