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Columbia University: School of General Studies

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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.

The Students

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 diverse.

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.

The Campus

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, “America’s Acropolis.”

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.

The City

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
  • PS1/MoMA
  • Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture
  • 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 environmental activists.

The Core

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

Special Programs

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.

Financial Aid

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

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 deadline.

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!

Student Organizations

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.

Prominent Graduates

  • R.W. Apple—New York Times chief correspondent and associate editor
  • Isaac Asimov—author
  • Baruj Benacerraf—Nobel laureate, medicine
  • Trent Dimas—Olympic gold medalist, gymnastics
  • 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, economics
  • Federico Garcia Lorca—poet and dramatist
  • 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

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