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 is rooted in the early years of the last century. It was in 1904 that Columbia’s president at the time, 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 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.
The 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 it 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-1950's, 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 Jewish Theological Seminary. This initiative, which remains popular after five 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 the working people, the 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.
The Rise of GS 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, at the same times, and 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 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 over 400 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 added two new dual-degree programs – one with Sciences Po, in France, and the other with the City University of Hong Kong. The genius of these offerings is that they 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, the 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 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 double 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. The students here are collectively engaged in demonstrating a basic truth: talented people of every age and background can make an irreplaceable contribution to university life.