By Robert Ast
Columbia University entered the modern world in 1830 with the institution of the Literary and Scientific Course, a track of instruction that eschewed Latin and Greek for the sciences and modern languages. The series of courses was open to all Columbia College students (roughly 120 in total)—but also to young men working in “mercantile and industrial establishments,” the University’s first part-time students. But modernity did not take, at least initially: the Literary and Scientific Course was discontinued in 1843, and it was not until the turn of the century that Columbia made a similar effort to reach beyond its gates.
Building upon a successful series of public lectures, the University launched the Summer Session in 1900 and Extension Teaching in 1904, both of which offered the New York community unprecedented educational opportunities. Limited access to higher education was a nationwide phenomenon: in 1904 only 2 percent of men and women 23 years old had earned a bachelor’s degree. Given this dearth, it is not surprising that Extension Teaching exploded, with nearly 1,600 students registering for adult education courses in 1904.
In addition to providing a service to the community and generating considerable income for the University, the program provided education commensurate with that given in the University’s other divisions. “Most of the regular courses in Extension Teaching are now given at the University, subject to exactly the same standards which are required for the regular programme,” wrote Frederick Keppel, the Dean of Columbia College (CC), in 1914. In 1921 the program was renamed University Extension and began to grant a degree: a Bachelor of Science in “general studies.”
But the program’s popularity also elicited concern within the Columbia College faculty. Some of the courses were vocational or simply nonacademic—subjects taught included stenography, beekeeping, and freshwater angling (given in the University pool)—offering ammunition to critics who questioned the program’s value, or at least its place at Columbia. For many the extension program’s fundamentally dual nature—providing both “a college education for adults” and “adult education,” which created a distinction between matriculated students seeking degrees (who underwent admissions screening processes) and the far more numerous non-matriculated students (who did not)— made separating the program’s benefits from its drawbacks a difficult, or simply unappealing, task.
The influx of GIs seeking undergraduate degrees after World War II, following years of declining enrollment due to the Great Depression and the war, brought the matter to a head, if not a resolution. Harry Morgan Ayres, Director of University Extension, argued that the program’s “various purposes do not conflict with each other. They form a whole that is complicated, but not confused.” Confident that the school could continue with minimal revision, Ayres suggested a name change that, although apparently merely cosmetic, would publicly affirm the existing reality: that University Extension was “genuinely a part of the University.” The new college’s name, School of General Studies, referred to both its bachelor’s degree and to the medieval schools known as studia generalia, which, unlike the studia particularia, served a broad array of students and scholars and became the foundation of the modern university.
GS quickly introduced a series of innovative educational ventures that could not have arisen anywhere else at Columbia, including the Joint Program with the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Albert List College and the Postbaccalaureate Premedical Program, created in 1954 and 1955, respectively. GS began to resemble a more traditional college, with its own faculty (1951) and Phi Beta Kappa chapter (1952), but the school continued to serve both degree-seeking and non-degree-seeking students, until the President’s Committee on the Educational Future of the University reported its findings in 1958. The Macmahon Committee Report, as it came to be known, affirmed the School’s mission of providing a college education for adults, noting that its “place is as important as that of any other unit in the University.” But the report also recommended that GS abandon its adult education courses; Dean Louis Hacker resigned in protest. Although the committee’s suggestion was not fully implemented, adult education courses were significantly curtailed.
With the increased focus on undergraduate education came increased focus on the degree that GS students earned. From almost the first moment when the extension program became a full-fledged school, questions had been raised about the appropriateness of the University granting a Bachelor of Science for a liberal-arts education. These questions became more persistent until—after considerable lobbying from GS students, alumni, faculty, and administrators, and despite rancorous opposition from some members of the CC faculty—in 1968 the University Council granted GS the right to award the Bachelor of Arts degree, and the school took the final step toward becoming a liberal arts college.
And, of course, something else happened in 1968. In late April students protesting the proposed gym in Morningside Park as well as Columbia’s role in military research took over several buildings on campus and occupied them for an entire week. Although GS students could be found on both sides of the conflict, most did not support the protesters, and some actually stood guard with administration and faculty members to prevent a takeover of Lewisohn Hall. The uprising and bloody evacuation of protesters by police were thoroughly, though not always accurately, covered by the national media. Along with the unfavorable perceptions of the University, in the early 1970s Columbia also had to contend with the deteriorating Morningside Heights neighborhood, and enrollment declined in many divisions, including GS. But by the middle of the decade, bolstered by innovative new course offerings and special joint-degree programs with Columbia’s graduate and professional schools, GS was able to report that applications were again on the rise.
Still, despite—or perhaps because of—its academic and fiscal successes, GS’s existence as a discrete undergraduate school was occasionally called into question. Suggestions to merge GS and CC were never seriously considered by the University’s central administration, however, and ultimately became irrelevant with the 1990 creation of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which unified the CC, GS, GSAS, and SIPA Faculties, ensuring that GS and CC students would take the same classes, with the same instructors.
Complete social integration did not follow directly on the heels of academic unification; initially GS students were presumed to have little interest in undergraduate social activities, which was generally true— most worked or had families, but virtually all were from the New York area, with pre-existing social networks. As the GS student body became more nationally and internationally diverse, with many students relocating to New York to earn degrees, the need for a student community became more apparent. After intensive efforts by student council officers in the late 1990s and early 2000s—efforts that continue today—the GS student body is now able to participate fully in undergraduate life.
GS continued to serve both degree-seeking and non-degree-seeking students until 1977, when the School of Continuing Education was established as a separate division. GS later reincorporated Continuing Education, but the two were again separated in 1995 as part of a thorough administrative reorganization that allowed GS to focus on its core mission: attracting, training, and supporting nontraditional students who possess exceptional academic potential.
From its inception, as a supplementary program expected to be almost entirely self-sufficient, the School of General Studies has thrived in a way that few could have expected. What was essentially a community outreach venture has become the nation’s finest undergraduate college for nontraditional students. GS alumni have gone on to change the world with their work in virtually every field imaginable. But perhaps just as important is the service they have provided the University by bringing the diversity of New York, and then the world, to Columbia.