1997: Expanding the Possibilities of Nontraditional Education

1997: Expanding the Possibilities of Nontraditional Education

June 3, 2017

School of General Studies Dean Peter J. Awn

As the Columbia University School of General Studies celebrates its 70th anniversary, the "GS at 70" series highlights critical moments in the creation and growth of the School.


by Robert Ast '08

In 1904, when Columbia created the Extension Teaching program as a vehicle for members of the community to take courses at the University, just two percent of Americans 23-years old or older held a bachelor’s degree. By the end of the 20th century, access to higher education had become far more widespread, and the student profile had changed as well: more than 70 percent of American undergraduates had delayed enrollment in college—opting instead to attend school part time or work full time—or were otherwise considered “nontraditional” according to academic researchers.

Since its founding as an undergraduate college in 1947, the primary focus of the School of General Studies (GS) has been providing a rigorous undergraduate education to this nontraditional student population. However, for nearly half a century, GS also managed a numberFormer GS Dean, Caroline Bynum of initiatives more reminiscent of its beginnings in University Extension, such as continuing education and summer courses. To draw focus and resources back to the School’s core mission, GS Dean Caroline Bynum began planning for an administrative reorganization that was finalized in 1995 during the deanship of Gillian Lindt. In the new structure, the undergraduate degree and Postbaccalaureate Premedical programs remained at GS, while other offerings were housed in the newly-created Division of Special Programs.

With the restructuring completed, Lindt announced her resignation and subsequent retirement. Columbia University President George Rupp selected, as her successor, a scholar who had served both Columbia and GS with distinction in a variety of ways. Peter J. Awn had been chair of the Department of Religion, a recipient of the Great Teacher Award from the Society of Columbia Graduates, and the faculty advisor who helped create the GS Honor Society. In an interview with the Columbia Spectator, Lindt cited Awn’s “experience and energy,” noting that he was “uniquely qualified” for the role and “the hard work necessary to make GS the institution it was designed to be.” Few, however, could have anticipated the truly transformative nature of his tenure.

Under Awn’s leadership, GS moved from a school largely unknown outside of New York to one that draws students from throughout the U.S. and all over the globe, launched an admissions recruitment campaign that made Columbia the leader among elite universities in educating military veterans, established innovative dual-degree programs with partner institutions throughout the world, and implemented full integration of GS students into the undergraduate liberal arts curriculum. Awn oversaw a period of flourishing that not only brought GS into the 21st century and left it well-positioned for the future, but also expanded the possibilities for what a nontraditional education could be—the most significant chapter yet in the history of a truly unique institution.


From June 1-4, 2017, GS alumni, students, and staff celebrated the 70th Anniversary of the School of General Studies. To view event photos, please visit the Columbia University School of General Studies Alumni Facebook Page.

"GS at 70"
1947: The Founding of GS

1968: The Fight for Equality

1991: Academic Integration at Columbia