Founded in 1947, in large part to accommodate the wave of veterans returning from
World War II, the School of General Studies of Columbia University (GS) is the finest liberal
arts college in the United States devoted to returning, adult, and nontraditional students who
seek a rigorous undergraduate education. GS students take the same classes, with the same
professors, and earn the same degree as students in Columbia’s other undergraduate colleges.
One of the world’s leading research centers, Columbia University offers a distinctive
and distinguished learning environment. Undergraduate colleges at Columbia include GS,
Columbia College, a liberal-arts college for traditional students, and the Fu Foundation
School of Engineering and Applied Science; affiliated institutions include Barnard College,
a liberal arts college for women, and The Jewish Theological Seminary.
What exactly is a nontraditional student? It’s a
difficult question, particularly since, according
to Department of Education figures, seventy-three
percent of all college students are nontraditional,
and the GS student body provides no easy answers.
Some GS students attend part-time while working,
performing, or raising a family, while others enroll
full-time and immerse themselves in the Columbia
undergraduate experience. The only thing common to
all GS students, apart from a desire to earn a bachelor’s
degree in a dynamic, challenging academic environment,
is the fact that they have interrupted their educations for at least one year. In
every other respect, each GS student is unique, making GS one of the most diverse colleges
in the nation and, moreover, a place where diversity is defined by standards that are themselves
The guiding philosophy of our school is to question the mainstream idea
of what makes a successful college student. Instead of requiring that all of its students
take the same path to get here, GS actively seeks out students who have
taken different paths. If one of the goals of diversification is to expand the perspectives
and backgrounds within a given community, what better way to
achieve it than by including individuals who have transcended tradition and
convention?” —Pavan Surapaneni, ’06, Political Science
Why General Studies?
The name “School of General Studies” is
rather unfortunate, because, as most GS
students are quick to point out, there’s
nothing general about us. GS evolved out
of Columbia’s extension program, which
offered degrees in “general studies.”
“School of General Studies” was adopted to
maintain a sense of continuity and to establish
GS as a full-fledged undergraduate college
based in part on the model of medieval
universities, which, because they catered to
a diverse, international group of scholars,
were known as studia generalia (vs. the
more parochial studia particularia).
Like New York City, GS is home to a wide spectrum of peoples and personalities:
world-class dancers, athletes, models, musicians, and actors, soldiers and refugees, entrepreneurs
and NGO workers, firefighters and police officers, community activists and computer
programmers, writers and welders, bankers, bike messengers, and baristas,
professionals returning for a second degree and parents resuming their education, students
who have never been to college and those who are transferring from community colleges
and Columbia’s peer institutions, representing each of the 50 states and every corner of the
world—all in search of a rich, vigorous education that prepares and inspires.
Stepping off Broadway and onto College Walk can be disorienting for the first-time visitor,
simply because the Columbia campus is unlike any other space in New York City.
Located on thirty-six acres in the northern Manhattan neighborhood of Morningside
Heights, the campus was designed by the renowned architect Charles McKim in a monumental
neoclassical style well suited to the neighborhood’s nineteenth-century nickname,
The first time I walked on campus, Columbia had me in its grip. I knew
I had to come here. Then later I became a student tour guide, to help pass on that
feeling. ” —Erich Erving, ’06, Writing
Glance to the north and you’ll see Low Library, modeled on the Roman Pantheon and
the Baths of Caracalla (which housed libraries and were the sites of public lectures, in
addition to their more obvious function). Beneath Low Library, which is actually no longer
a library, but the university administration building and site for special events, such as the
annual awarding of the Pulitzer Prize, is Low Plaza, an open space ideal for socializing that
has been called an “urban beach” and named a “Great American Public Place.”
Glance to the south and you’ll see the tall Ionic columns of Butler Library, the university’s
main library, which houses two million of Columbia’s nine and one half million volumes.
The main study spot on campus, Butler has a serious façade—literally: the names of
ancient and modern writers, orators, and philosophers are inscribed on its frieze—and,
with Columbia’s academic demands, you will spend a not inconsiderable amount of time
there or in one of the university’s twenty-five other libraries. Of course, everyone else is
there too, so this is not an isolating experience; rather, the libraries are places where the
entire university comes to work, socialize, and procrastinate together.
James Thurber once wrote to his New Yorker colleague E. B. White that “[t]here is nothing
else in all the countries of the world like New York City life. It does more to people,
it socks them harder, than life in Paris, London, or Rome, say, possibly could.” A fundamental
characteristic of GS students, whether they are lifelong New York residents or moving
to the city for the first time, is an openness to the whole experience of New York City
life, with all its vicissitudes.
New York City offers unparalleled and inexhaustible
cultural and recreational opportunities,
but as a GS student your interaction with the city
won’t be strictly extracurricular. You’ll have the
option to study with some of the leading members of
New York’s arts community, retrace Walt Whitman’s
steps in “Whitman and New York,” or learn about
Manhattan from Peter Minuit to the present day,
including a professor-led bike ride through the city,
in “History of the City of New York.” You’ll also visit
some of the city’s outstanding museums and performance
spaces through core courses in art and music.
Of course, as an elite university in a world city,
Columbia is also uniquely poised to reach far beyond
the borders of its hometown. Through initiatives such
as the Committee on Global Thought, which counts
among its members Joseph Stiglitz and Orhan
Pamuk, Nobel laureates in economics and literature,
respectively, and the World Leaders Forum, which,
since its founding in 2003, has brought leaders from
more than forty countries to campus, including the Dalai Lama, Vladimir Putin of Russia, and
Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, Columbia has become increasingly connected to institutions and scholars throughout the world. GS students complement this outward extension by bringing
their distinctive experiences to Morningside Heights and, in doing so, are playing a unique
and significant role as Columbia becomes a global university.
Passport to New York
Columbia students with a valid ID card can
obtain free admission to the museums
listed below (and many others).
- American Folk Art Museum
- Asia Society
- The Cloisters
- Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
- International Center of Photography
- El Museo del Barrio
- Museum of Chinese in the Americas
- Museum of the City of New York
- Museum of Jewish Heritage—A
Living Memorial to the Holocaust
- Museum of Modern Art
- Metropolitan Museum of Art
- Museum of Television and Radio
- National Academy Museum
- New York City Police Museum
- New York Historical Society
- Schomberg Center for Research in
- Whitney Museum of American Art
Everyone knows Andy Warhol’s soup cans–but seeing an entire wall of
them at MoMA is a different experience altogether. Similarly, I’d listened to some
of Morton Feldman’s compositions on my iPod, but I didn’t realize how quiet and
textured they were until I heard them played by a full orchestra at Carnegie
Hall. For some things you really do have to be there.
Any college has the power to help shape a life: taking a certain class, discovering a
certain interest, meeting certain people—any or all of these can launch a trajectory that
might last a lifetime. But GS, with its unique student body and academic rigor, has a singular
opportunity to transform a life.
When I arrived at GS the highlight of my professional career was a particularly
well-received Jamba Juice run. Of course I always knew that I could do
more, if given the opportunity; GS gave me the opportunity. Glancing around at
Commencement I saw my classmates: a former member of Guns N’ Roses who’s
now in medical school, the chief architect of Internet Explorer, and a retired New
York City firefighter who worked in the recovery effort at Ground Zero, and so
many other people with amazing stories. I found myself marveling at the fact
that we were all together, in one place; that’s when I realized fully just how
special this school is.
Academic life at Columbia is, to borrow a title from University Professor Simon
Schama, an “embarrassment of riches.” You can choose from more than seventy majors (or
design your own), embark on a study-abroad program virtually anywhere in the world, and
study with a distinguished faculty. GS students also contribute immeasurably to the university
by bringing their pasts into the classroom; you might be reading The Iliad with a soldier
just back from Iraq, or learning about sustainable development with grassroots
GS students arrive at Columbia with varying degrees of academic preparation; some
have never attended college, while others have already earned a bachelor’s degree (or,
in some cases, advanced degrees). One thing that unites them, however, is the Core, a
series of distribution requirements designed to encourage critical thinking in a number of
disciplines. GS students fulfill requirements in science, literature, humanities, social sciences,
art, music, and cultural diversity, and demonstrate proficiency in a foreign language.
In some cases, core requirements can be fulfilled through exemption exams or with transfer
credit for equivalent courses taken at another institution.
Nontraditional students and eighteen to twenty-two-year-olds on their own for the first
time will inevitably have different concerns, and accordingly, GS has a full staff of
school-specific advisors who work exclusively with GS students and are well equipped to
offer counsel in a variety of areas, from making the transition to Columbia to finding childcare
options or balancing a career with studies. GS also provides preprofessional and fellowship
advising, as well as tutoring and study-skills workshops throughout the year
through the GS Academic Resource Center.
I have a great relationship with my advisor. He has helped me with both
academic affairs as well as administrative issues. Having this support is key to
balancing a successful student life.” —Michael Rain, ’09, Political Science
For more than fifty years GS has been home to the Joint Program with Albert A. List
College of The Jewish Theological Seminary. Students in the Joint Program earn two
bachelor’s degrees: one from GS and one in a Judaic studies program from List College. GS
students also have the option to pursue dual-degree programs with many of Columbia’s
graduate schools, including the 3-2 engineering combined plan (three years at GS, two at
the School of Engineering and Applied Science).
The Faculty and the Classroom
As a premier research university in New York City, Columbia consistently draws some of
the world’s leading scholars. The Columbia Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which offers
instruction to students in GS, Columbia College, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences,
and the School of International and Public Affairs, includes members of the American
Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences and National Medal
of Science and MacArthur Foundation Award winners, in addition to nine Nobel laureates
(out of seventy-nine in the University’s history).
Just as important, however, is Columbia’s commitment to undergraduate education,
which ensures that you’ll actually be in class with a professor, not a TA. The student-faculty
ratio is seven to one, and course offerings range from large lecture classes to small seminars
to individual independent studies.
Most of my classes were seminars, where I had to be prepared for every session;
even in lecture courses, the professors would quiz us on the reading or start a
discussion. Columbia’s definitely not a place where one can just absorb information
passively. Of course, no one I’ve met here would ever stand for that.
There is no way around it—a GS education is expensive. While admission is needblind,
applicants should be aware that, in most cases, they will need to take out loans in
order to attend GS.
Aid is available, however, and GS has recently taken steps to enhance its financial
aid program; additionally, Columbia is currently in the midst of a capital campaign that
includes a stated goal of raising $15 million for GS financial aid. Approximately seventy percent
of all GS students receive some form of need-based financial aid, merit scholarship, or
both. Many students also receive outside scholarships or grants from private organizations,
such as the Jack Kent Cooke and Charlotte Newcombe Foundations.
Need-based aid includes grants, loans, and the federal work-study program. To receive
need-based aid, you must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid
(FAFSA), which will determine your Estimated Family Contribution (EFC), the key to your
eligibility for federal aid. The EFC is based on your tax return, so if you’ve been working fulltime,
you may see a high number; after you’re admitted, however, you can apply to have your
eligibility reevaluated due to a change in financial circumstance, since, as a student, your
annual income will be lower (much, much lower).
The FAFSA is also the primary factor in determining your eligibility for New York
State aid, which could include either the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) or Aid for Part-
Time Study (APTS).
Institutional (Merit-based) Aid
At GS institutional aid consists of merit-based scholarships, which are awarded to new
and continuing students who demonstrate academic achievement. In general, the
level of support increases as students progress through their degree programs. Students
must reapply for financial aid every year, so be sure you have everything turned in by the
I was fortunate in receiving generous scholarships, but they didn’t cover
the entire cost of attendance. I considered GS as an investment in myself, and I
think that paying my own way made me take my education more seriously.”
Program for Academic Leadership and Service (PALS)
The Program for Academic Leadership and Service (PALS) is a scholarship opportunity
for first-generation college students with significant financial need who are members
of historically underrepresented groups at Columbia. The PALS scholarship covers full
tuition and entails a service requirement of fifteen hours per semester, although most PALS
scholars exceed that through their work on a number of service initiatives, including the
annual No Limits Conference, which brings area high school students to campus to highlight
the importance (and possibility) of higher education.
PALS is unmatched in the Ivy League. The unparalleled financial aid
package and the opportunity to work with New York City public school students
have made my Columbia education the most fulfilling experience of my life.” —Adrienne Herrera, ’09, English Literature and Sociology
The GS student body is a mixture of recent transplants and longtime New Yorkers,
with an average age of twenty-nine. Some GS students step on campus only to attend
classes and then return to their everyday lives, while others structure their lives around
being a Columbia undergraduate. Whatever level of engagement you choose, you won’t have
any trouble meeting people. Most new students join Storybook, an online community specifically
for newly admitted GS students, and meet their classmates before Orientation. The
on-campus hub for GS student life is the GS Lounge, a space for studying and socializing
that is open twenty-four hours and specifically dedicated to GS students.
Housing is often a concern for GS students relocating to New York, given the unique (to
say the least) nature of the New York real estate market. Full-time GS students are eligible
for university-owned or -leased apartments, but quantities are limited, with priority
given to students who apply early and are moving from great distances; approximately half
of all eligible students live in university housing.
Finding an apartment wasn’t easy, but that’s how New York is. If I
wanted easy, I would’ve stayed in Kansas. I spent an entire week hitting refresh
on craigslist and looking at apartments—a minor inconvenience, when you consider
all the advantages that New York offers. And it paid off: I found an affordable,
rent-stabilized place close to campus. It can be done; keep the faith!
GS students are fully integrated into the Columbia undergraduate community and can
choose from more than two-hundred and fifty student organizations that include
everything from fraternities and sororities to student-run publications, service initiatives,
and businesses to cultural, religious, activist, and performance groups. If the organization
you envision doesn’t exist, you always have the option to create it: some of Columbia’s most
distinctive organizations were started by GS students, including the U.S. Military Veterans
of Columbia University and the Columbia Ballet Collaborative.
The GS Gala is one of those unique events that allows students to interact
at a completely different level than in University Writing, or passing each
other on College Walk, or discussing Oscar Wilde in a study group in Butler
Library. It’s a chance for students to step out of their day-to-day wardrobe and
put school work on hold, in order to get all dressed up and enjoy a well-deserved,
elegant night out.” —Elizabeth Hollister, ’07, Drama and Theatre Arts
Many GS students participate in student government through the University Senate and
the General Studies Student Council, which represents the student body to the GS administration
and across the university. The student council also sponsors a number of social events
throughout the year, including the GS Gala, a formal held annually in Low Rotunda.
As a member of the Ivy League, Columbia competes at the NCAA Division I level. The
university also offers a number of club and intramural sports opportunities. GS students
are eligible to join any of Columbia’s teams (subject to NCAA regulations), and many
do; in fact, in recent years GS students have competed on the varsity volleyball team and
placed second in the national equestrian championships (as well as competed on the U.S.
Olympic skeleton and ice dancing teams).
Approximately seventy percent of all GS graduates earn graduate or professional
degrees, either immediately after graduation or at a later date. Some GS graduates pursue
fellowship opportunities, while others resume previous careers or begin new ones in a wide
variety of fields.
Both students and alumni have access to the Center for Career Education, which capitalizes
on New York’s status as an industry center by offering a robust series of information
panels, on-campus recruitment events, and internship opportunities. Throughout the year the
center also sponsors a number of career fairs that focus on green jobs, not-for-profit and public
service opportunities, international organizations, and government careers.
As a GS alum, you’ll be part of a global network that includes not only GS graduates,
but alumni from all of Columbia’s undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools. You
can stay connected to the university as a member of the Recent Alumni Leadership
Committee, or by joining one of the regional chapters of the Columbia Alumni Association,
which holds events throughout the United States and in many foreign countries. Alums who
remain in New York can participate in the Columbia Alumni Arts League, which offers discounted
tickets to cultural events and spotlights alumni working in the arts.
- R.W. Apple—New York Times chief
correspondent and associate editor
- Isaac Asimov—author
- Baruj Benacerraf—Nobel laureate,
- Trent Dimas—Olympic gold medalist,
- Jerry Ford—co-founder of Ford Models
- Alicia Graf—dancer, Dance Theatre of
Harlem and Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre
- Jane Jacobs—activist, author of The
Death and Life of Great American Cities
- Donald Judd—artist
- Simon Kuznets—Nobel laureate,
- Federico Garcia Lorca—poet and
- Stewart Rawlings Mott—philanthropist,
member of Richard Nixon’s enemies list
- Jacques Pepin—chef
- Anthony Perkins—actor, best known as
Norman Bates in Psycho
- Thomas Reardon—architect of the
Internet Explorer browser
- Gil Shahan—award-winning violinist
- Kristi Zea—Academy Awardnominated
art director and producer