The fifth-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States, Columbia University was founded in 1754 as King's College. After the Revolutionary War, it was renamed Columbia in honor of the new American republic.
The School of General Studies traces its beginnings to the nineteenth century when the University began serving part-time students, active teachers, other professionals, and the general public. Eventually called University Extension, the School granted Bachelor of Science degrees beginning in 1921. Following World War II and aiming to meet the needs of returning GIs, University Extension was restructured and designated the School of General Studies in 1947. The college began awarding Bachelor of Arts degrees in 1968.
Today, GS serves exceptional degree-seeking undergraduates who have had a break of one year or more in their education, as well as college graduates completing coursework to apply to medical school, and students pursuing two bachelor's degrees in one of our dual or joint degree programs.
The School of General Studies at Columbia University has always sought to bring the rigor of a Columbia education to a democratic and diverse student body. The combination of high intellectual standards with an egalitarian ethos has propelled GS on a path of innovation since its earliest days. Today, GS continues to build upon this legacy even as it offers its students the finest liberal arts education available in this country to all those with the courage to forge their own educational path.
The history of GS, and nontraditional education at Columbia, is rooted in the mid-19th century, when a nontraditional student curriculum was conceived with the offering of the first “Literary and Scientific Course” geared toward working adults.
Furthering this dedication to nontraditional education, in 1891, upon a suggestion from President Seth Low, the University began offering classes to non-degree students and the general public—including women. And in 1904, President Nicholas Murray Butler established the University Extension Program to serve the working men and women of New York City.
The Program made available to this broad public a plethora of courses in classics, modern languages, and philosophy. Its catalogue also contained a host of more professionally-oriented options in such fields as mechanical engineering, industrial chemistry, and the fine arts.
University Extension prospered and broke new ground in higher education. It offered some of the first college-level courses in the nation in creative writing and dramatic arts. It hired Columbia's first female professors. It awarded Columbia's first bachelor's degrees to female undergraduates. And it employed the University's first adjunct professors chosen specifically for their expertise, including Thomas Merton in English composition and Margaret Mead in anthropology.
Second World War
The aftermath of World War II brought momentous changes to the University's approach to adult education. Encouraged by the GI Bill, which promised to fund their education, thousands of veterans seeking a degree arrived on the Morningside Heights campus. Typically they were only in their twenties, but their worldly experience put them in a different category from the still younger students who attended Columbia College.
The presence of these veterans impelled the University to establish the School of General Studies in 1947. Over the ensuing decade, the School acquired many of the characteristics that define it today. It began to focus on students pursuing a bachelor's degree; it required them to meet stringent admissions criteria, and insisted that they complete a demanding set of courses prior to graduation. In this way, GS became more like the other colleges at Columbia. What continued to set it apart was its commitment to adults whose life plans did not conform to the conventional high school-to-college model of education.
In the mid-1950s, GS reaffirmed its commitment to academic experimentation by launching the country's first pathway to medical school for college graduates—the Postbaccalaureate Premedical Certificate Program. The Program quickly became a pipeline for hundreds of this country's first female physicians. Shortly thereafter, GS began offering a dual degree course with the List College of the Jewish Theological Seminary. This initiative, which remains popular after six decades, was the first to prove that sufficiently motivated undergraduates could acquire two rigorous bachelor's degrees in the space of four years.
The closing years of the last century saw new leadership take the helm at GS. They foresaw that the group GS served—the so-called non-traditional student population—would soon comprise the majority of all college students in the nation. They set about turning GS into the nation's pre-eminent destination for working people, community college graduates, and the many other non-traditional students who would be able, if offered the chance, to make excellent use of Columbia’s resources.
Rise to National Prominence
The first step towards revitalizing GS was to ensure the full integration of its students into the undergraduate liberal arts curriculum. Today’s GS students take the same courses, with the same professors, as their Columbia College peers. The presence in the undergraduate classroom of GS students, with their diversity of perspectives and varied life experiences, has become one of the defining features of a Columbia education.
A second important step was to bring the institution back to its mission of educating U.S. military veterans. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had created, once again, a vast cohort of former soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, many of whom had used their years of service to acquire training in foreign languages, cryptography, strategic analysis, and other high-level skills. By establishing close relationships with military bases across the country, and by supporting student veterans in their transition to civilian and campus life, GS became the pre-eminent destination for veterans seeking an Ivy League college education. Today there are more than 500 veterans pursuing bachelor's degrees at GS—a number many times greater than that to be found at any other elite institution.
The GS administration built on a tradition of another kind when it began creating new dual-degree programs—with Sciences Po, Trinity College Dublin, and City University of Hong Kong. These offerings allow undergraduates to immerse themselves, over the course of four years, in two different educational systems, and to learn to feel at home in two different countries. For those hoping to tackle global challenges in their future careers, these programs offer an ideal way to acclimate to a multi-polar world.
By the second decade of the twenty-first century, with a hundred-year tradition of innovation and excellence behind it, GS had become the destination of choice for mature adults and independent-minded learners seeking a top-notch college education. The School's student body now comprises actors and musicians, athletes and ballet dancers, veterans and reservists, parents and working people, foreign-born scholars and first-generation Americans, community college alumni, and people transferring from other four-year institutions, as well the born internationalists who are pursuing dual degrees.
The presence of undergraduates from so many different parts of the country and of the world, having so many fascinating stories to tell, lends GS a sense of dynamism unmatched anywhere else in American higher education today. Our students are collectively engaged in demonstrating a basic truth: talented people of every age and background can make an irreplaceable contribution to university life.
Studium Generale and the School of General Studies
The name “General Studies” refers to both Columbia’s institutional history and the history of higher education more broadly. Although the foundation for the modern university was laid in the Middle Ages, the story truly begins with the ancient Greeks.
The ancient Greeks created and developed the disciplines that the Romans later codified as artes liberales, which were divided into two sections: the trivium and the quadrivium. Plato and Aristotle produced the most significant work for the trivium, which consisted of grammar, logic, and rhetoric and preceded the quadrivium—arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy—which originated even earlier, with Pythagoras.
The artes liberales model persisted until the Middle Ages, even though firsthand knowledge of Plato and Aristotle had largely disappeared. The Greek language had not been studied in Western Europe for centuries—the original texts were extant, but inaccessible; all that remained were summaries of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy found in Roman encyclopedias.
At the same time, however, learning in the Arab world—here, a catchall term that describes Muslims and speakers of Arabic from Iraq to Egypt to Spain—was based on the Greek model, since the vast majority of significant Greek texts had been translated into Arabic (largely the work of the translators of the Baghdad academy known as the “House of Wisdom”). As a result of the increasing interaction between the Christian and Muslim worlds early in the second millennium, translations were made from Arabic into Latin, and ancient Greek texts reappeared in Europe for the first time in centuries.
With the glut of new information—particularly in mathematics and science, which had been virtually stagnant in the West—it was no longer possible for teachers to master everything, and schools began to specialize in particular disciplines. Disciplinary centers like Paris (theology) and Bologna (law) drew students from all over Europe and consequently became known as studia generalia, referring to the fact that the students and instructors were a heterogeneous and international group (in contrast with the studia particularia, which served a more local community). Studium generale remained the preferred term throughout the Middle Ages; “university,” derived from universitas, a Roman legal term for a corporation of students and faculty, did not take hold until much later.
The name “General Studies” also has particular significance at Columbia. The School of General Studies grew out of the Extension Teaching program, which Columbia launched in 1904. The Extension Teaching program allowed the larger New York community to take night classes at Columbia (at a time when only 2 percent of American men and women 23 years old had earned a bachelor’s degree). In 1921 Extension Teaching was renamed University Extension, and the program began to grant a degree—a Bachelor of Science in “general studies,” irrespective of the subject in which a student majored. Future Nobel laureates Simon Kuznets and Baruj Benacerraf both earned degrees in “general studies,” though they studied economics and biology, respectively.
When University Extension was reorganized as a full-fledged undergraduate college after World War II, the program’s director Harry Morgan Ayres chose a name that allowed the School to redefine itself while maintaining continuity with its history. Today the School of General Studies is the finest liberal arts college in the United States dedicated specifically to students with nontraditional backgrounds from all over the world who seek a rigorous, traditional, Ivy League degree.
Ayres, Harry Morgan. Report to the President of Columbia University. University Extension, Columbia University. New York: 1946.
Pedersen, Olaf. The First Universities: Studium generale and the origins of university education in Europe. Trans. Richard North. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Rashdall, Hastings. The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages. 3 vols. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1936.