What’s Your GS Story?

Exploring the history of Columbia’s coolest school


By Ned Russin

What’s your GS story?

One of the first questions a student from the School of General Studies (GS) will surely be asked upon the reveal of their academic status is what is their “GS story.” Columbia’s
School of General Studies is the university’s school for non-traditional students, defined by the school as someone who is returning to college “after a break of a year or more in their educational paths,” and therefore comes with the expectations of having an interesting reason for taking time off from formal education. The “GS story,” then, is a recounting of that time and those experiences which brought a student to Morningside Heights, and the school loves to aunt the fact that a lot of people actually did things, whatever they may be. GS is, according to their website, now the home to “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.”

Illustration by Jennifer Bi

The “GS story” is an easy and appealing marketing tool; it quickly identifies not only how a student is different (and hopefully interesting), but how the school as a whole is made up of these different (and hopefully interesting) people and therefore is interesting itself. It’s patting yourself on the back and talking about patting yourself on the back at the same time. There are few, if any, other academic institutions where an 18-year-old can discuss such “real world” topics as war, love, and loss with a person anywhere from five to 30 years their senior who has actually experienced such things up close and personal. Dean Peter Awn, who retired at the end of last school year after serving as GS’s dean for 20 years, recently wrote in The Owl, GS’s Alumni Magazine, that GS takes “diversity to its logical conclusions by integrating age and experience into the intellectual discourse among students and faculty.”


The School of General Studies celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, being formally founded in 1947. But despite its proclaimed prominence and newly-acquired septuagenarian status, GS still seems to be a misunderstood entity on campus. What is GS’s GS story?

Before GS

General Studies can trace its history back to two defunct Columbia schools: the University Extension Program and Seth Low Junior College. The University Extension Program was established in 1904 by President Nicholas Murray Butler as Extension Teaching and renamed University Extension in 1911. University Extension was set up to meet the needs of non-traditional students looking for part-time courses, and would eventually spawn Columbia’s School of Business as well as the School of Dental and Oral Surgery. What it was not set up for, however, was the opportunity to earn a degree. As the Spectator noted in their February 6, 1930 issue, any attempt to do so was not welcomed by the Columbia College community. They wrote: “If University Extension is trying now to lay the foundation for an attempt in the near future to dignify itself by the use of the word college in its title … such an attempt should and will be combatted by all those loyal to the interests of Columbia College. Let University Extension look to factors other than its name for an increase in dignity, and if it must nd a new name let it refrain from any name that will tend to confuse it with Columbia College.” Spec continued noting that “Extension gives no degree and possess none of the attributes of a college in the commonly accepted meaning of the term.”

Seth Lower Junior College was also a contentious addition to Columbia and, according to Professor James C. Egbert, the Director of University Extension, the product of University Extension. “University Extension”, he stated in 1930, “furnished the two years of collegiate courses which later became Seth Low Junior College.” Writing on the formation of the college, which was based in Brooklyn and conceived in 1928, Spec stated that “the requirements for entrance will be substantially the same as those enforced in Columbia College and will include the Thorndike intelligence examination.” The college lasted until 1936.

Let University Extension look to factors other than its name for an increase in dignity, and if it must nd a new name let it refrain from any name that will tend to confuse it with Columbia College.

Leeza Hirt, CC ’18, writing for Columbia’s journal of contemporary politics, culture, and Jewish affairs at Columbia University, The Current, stated “Seth Low had the same requirements for entry as Columbia College, as well as the same price of tuition: $380 annually. However, the education was of a decidedly lesser quality; it was only a two-year program, and was not a degree-granting institution. Upon completion of the program, students could go on to enroll in professional schools that only required two years of college or they could matriculate into the Morningside campus as ‘University

Undergraduate’ but not as Columbia College students. They would receive Bachelors of Science degrees instead of Bachelors of Arts degrees, which were considered less prestigious, and the students would not be allowed to live on campus.” This was not the most troubling aspect of Seth Low, unfortunately.

“Because of the demographic makeup of the Seth Low Junior College student body,” Hirt writes, “it was predominantly Jewish—and the restrictions placed upon them once they transferred to the Morningside campus, some observers… took its real purpose to be keeping Jews away from Columbia.” While Columbia’s anti-semitism was never explicitly confirmed by the school itself, Seth Low is a major blemish on the school’s history and speaks for itself. After the formation of Brooklyn College in 1930, Seth Low’s purpose to provide a quality Brooklyn-based education quickly became obsolete and the school folded soon thereafter.

After the closure of Seth Low, University Extension saw continued increase in registration. Spec wrote on November 30, 1930 that, “In the past twenty years, enrollment in University Extension has increased from 1,312 to 27,845 students entailing a rise in budget from $42,500 to $1,822,175.” University Extension would be reorganized after the end of World War II and the return of GIs to form an undergraduate college known as the School of General Studies.

GS Then

On Friday December 6, 1946, Spec reported that “The University trustees have voted to establish a new school at Columbia to be called ‘The School of General Studies.’ Spectator is able to report. Details of the plan will be announced for general release tomorrow, but it is known that the action is the result of complete reorganization of University Extensions.” The school’s original incarnation seemed to be a logical conclusion of its predecessor. In 1948, only a year into GS’s tenure, Spec wrote, “The school today presents opportunities for mature adults unable for various reasons to attend a college, to receive the benefits of higher education.”

In 1949, Dr. Louis M. Hacker, an economic historian, was appointed director of the school, and two years later he was appointed as the first dean of the School of General Studies. The school was able to award originally only able to award a Bachelors of Science degree but the school was still open to non-traditional students even if they were non-degree seeking. GS was made up of mainly night classes at this point in time and Hacker was in support of redefining adult education “since it strives to present a exible program to the mature student, closely adjusted to individual needs, maintaining scholastic standards equal to those in the rest of the Columbia family,” according to an early GS catalogue.

Where I and my colleagues at Columbia University are parting company is on the role, indeed obligation, of a great university in a metropolitan region to keep an open door for all qualified men and women who seek to attend in its regular academic programs… whether or not they are degree-seekers or full time students or have passed through admissions gates.

The Postbaccalaureate Premedical Program was started in 1955 for already-graduated students who decided that they would like to go to medical school. This program is still in place today and currently has more than 330 students enrolled.

The Educational Future of Columbia University, or formally referred to as the MacMahon Report, released in 1957 disagreed with Hacker’s stance, however. Just one year later, Hacker resigned stating: “Where I and my colleagues at Columbia University are parting company is on the role, indeed obligation, of a great university in a metropolitan region to keep an open door for all qualified men and women who seek to attend in its regular academic programs… whether or not they are degree-seekers or full time students or have passed through admissions gates.”

The MacMahon report recommended that GS only admit students who intended on earning a B.S. degree, as well as urging GS to take higher standards in admissions practices, as well as creating an age minimum of 23. Once again, the authenticity of the GS degree was called into question. “It is time for Columbia to admit that it cannot serve the cause of undergraduate liberal education, maintain its high standards of scholarship, and, at the same time, provide an educational service to the community in the present School of General Studies,” Bruce Shoulson wrote in Spec. GS plugged along, regardless.

During the next decade, while the University was recovering from the 1968 riots, the trustees approved a recommendation from the University Council granting GS the ability to confer Bachelor of Arts degrees. “Efforts by the School of General Studies to acquire the B.A. degree [was] met with opposition last semester from some administrators, faculty, and students of the College,” Spec wrote.

The next major change occurred right before the end of the 20th century, as GS nally seemed to cement itself as an actual part of the school. In 1991, the faculty of Columbia College, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the School of General Studies, School of the Arts, School of Professional Studies and the School of International and Public Affairs were reorganized as the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. This move would be furthered in 1995 when the school, in a move that nally and formally distanced itself from Hacker’s original intentions, split into two parts: degree seeking and non-degree seeking. Programs such as the Summer Session, American Language, and Continuing Education were organized under a separate Division of Special Programs, now known as the School of Professional Studies. “GS’s identity will be strengthened in its mission and will emerge as a stronger college for non-traditional students,” then-Associate Dean of GS Frank Wolf told Spec. These actions made GS a recognized undergraduate school of Columbia University.

Over the course of the 20th century, Columbia’s attempt to offer education to non-traditional students went from exclusionary, non-degree conferring actions to an attempt at inclusion and a recognition of being a real part of the University.

GS Now

So what is GS now in its 70th anniversary? GS students are held to nearly identical standards as their Columbia College contemporaries save for a few exceptions. GS students’ core requirements are altered in only a few ways: no swim test; no physical education requirements; and Contemporary Civilizations, Literature Humanities, and Frontiers of Science requirements, while available to GS students, can be fulfilled with other classes. GS students are allowed to go part-time, although only 27% of the current student body of approximately 2,000 students do so. The only degree available to its students is a Bachelors of Arts, which feature the same majors and concentrations and requirements as its CC counterparts. Started in 2010, GS also offers a dual-degree program between Columbia and France’s Science Po.

While GS is up front with their financial situation, students fight for high GPAs in order to receive scholarship and grants which other undergrads at Columbia do not have to worry about.

At this point, the main differences between GS and other undergraduate colleges at Columbia are its admissions and financial aid departments. The admissions department lists scant information on its website and did not respond to an email request, but according to the website prepscholar.com, GS’s admission rate is 33%, 27% higher than CC and SEAS, and 18% higher than Barnard. GS states that the applicant pool is already highly self-selective due to the fact that most people deciding to go back to school later in life are of certain qualifications. And this may be true, as GS regularly boasts the highest GPA of any undergraduate school at Columbia University.

But high GPAs have more to do with GS’s nancial aid situation than anything. As this magazine reported in 2013, GS’s finances are stretched razor thin, especially compared to that of CC and SEAS. While GS is up front with their nancial situation, students fight for high GPAs in order to receive scholarship and grants which other undergrads at Columbia do not have to worry about.

While the idea of merging GS and CC has been mentioned before, the last time being in 2013, GS remains separate and, more importantly, separated. The fight for GS’s integration has been constant since in its inception 70 years ago and seems to remain despite various improvements made, especially since Dean Peter Awn’s tenure began 20 years ago. Just this last year, General Studies Student Council lobbied for full swipe access for its students, specifically, as Bwog reported, to gain access to the CPS walk-in hours for GS students. While GS has come a long way from its night school, non-degree ways, it seems that it will be even longer until it is truly equal to its Columbia counterparts.

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