The School of General Studies is moving toward a possible merger with Columbia College, according to a report issued in May by the Task Force on Undergraduate Education.
The report was driven by a desire to integrate GS into the greater undergraduate community. It makes specific proposals to expand GS's financial aid and housing and to integrate the School's student services and admissions with those of CC and SEAS. The document suggests a merger with the College as one way of achieving this.
"Out of our discussion has emerged, if not yet a consensus, at least an interest in considering a new relationship between GS and the other undergraduate schools, one that could even lead to an actual merger of GS and the College," the Task Force, which is comprised of administrators, students, and faculty members from CC, SEAS, and GS, stated in a report presented at a May meeting.
Many view the proposal—versions of which have been discussed several times since the 1980s—to be closer to realization than ever. The measure has substantial momentum from several administrators, who acknowledge that a closer relationship between the two schools would help GS recruit more and better applicants by providing larger financial aid packages, housing, and administrative resources.
General Studies Student Council President Niko Cunningham, who sits on the Task Force, expressed confidence that students will see tangible effects of such talks. "There are students here today that when they graduate from GS, their diploma will say something different than mine does."
"The curricular differences are minor at this point, and we're going to be looking into whether we should collapse that distinction altogether," Vice President of Arts and Sciences Nicholas Dirks said of the potential integration.
A Look Back
The discussions mirror those from 13 years ago when administrators made a concerted effort to integrate SEAS and CC through the creation of a joint Office of Student Affairs under Dean Chris Colombo. The integration allowed SEAS to access a much larger pool of financial and administrative resources, a crucial step for allowing the school to grow, according to SEAS Interim Dean Gerald Navratil and SEAS Vice Dean Morton Friedman.
In the past 10 years, the school has seen its applicant pool triple and has gone from admitting about half of all applicants to a record-breaking 18 percent, while still increasing the size of its student body.
While the 1994 move has been credited for improving relations and fostering a sense of community between SEAS and CC, administrators say that SEAS has maintained its own identity. Although undergraduates in SEAS and CC live in the same residence halls, have access to the same advising resources, and are allowed to register for many of the same classes, Navratil stressed that SEAS retains its own faculty and departments. "The fact that we partner with the College where it's a mutual advantage doesn't mean we're 'merged,'" he said.
No final conclusions have been made as to what degree CC and GS would be integrated, but it is possible that the "merger" would mirror that of SEAS and CC from the 1990s, where the integration would be limited to a bureaucratic reshuffling and light curricular changes.
This shift might alleviate many of the concerns voiced by GS students.
Cunningham said GS is excluded in many ways from the structural and social environment reserved for CC and SEAS. He cited housing, financial aid, and even the Office of Multicultural Affairs as concerns.
"While SEAS shares in centralized services with the College, the school [GS] has preserved a separate identity ... GS doesn't share any centralized services," Cunningham said.
Making the Case
Although the idea of greater integration has been raised repeatedly in the past, the recent discussions come in light of the fact that differences in curricula and faculty between GS and CC have increasingly diminished.
According to Peter Awn, Dean of the School of General Studies, in 1995 the University decided to separate GS from the rest of its continuing education programs. "If you look at any other university, colleges for non-traditional students are always embedded within a continuing education ... environment.... Now you have a freestanding college for non-traditional students," Awn said.
Originally, the differences in academic requirements between GS and CC were a product of separate faculties in the two schools, according to Awn, who added that during the 1970s, Columbia was "one of the most decentralized universities in the Ivy League." It was not until the 1990s that the faculties for the College, GS, and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences were united under the Faculty for Arts and Sciences, currently headed by Dirks.
The report targets three areas of concern for the Task Force to address: uneven academic stature of GS students, isolation from the undergraduate education, and the inability of GS students to participate in the undergraduate curriculum in equal degree to those in CC.
An alignment of the curricula followed the unification of the faculty. GS students, like their counterparts in the College, have Core requirements including Art Humanities, Music Humanities, and University Writing, and although it is not mandatory, they may sign up for Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilizations.
"There used to be two separate curricula between the College and General Studies, and that's all been eroded," English and comparative literature Professor Michael Rosenthal said. He added that an evening curriculum for GS students who have jobs during the day has been eliminated.
Thus far, the Task Force has advocated an even closer binding of the two curricula by recommending the addition of enough sections of Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization to the current two sections available to GS students, estimating the cost to accommodate all who are interested at $1 million annually. "I wouldn't be surprised if we find that within the next five years even the Core Curriculum is going to be identical," Awn said.
Beyond academics, integration between GS and CC will potentially affect admissions, financial aid, housing, and student life.
The Task Force report suggests integrating GS admissions with the Undergraduate Office of Admissions for CC and SEAS with the understanding that GS students are evaluated under different criteria that are still as rigorous as CC and SEAS admissions standards.
Navratil said moving under the same Undergraduate Admissions Office had been largely beneficial for SEAS, and an admissions merger would probably benefit GS as well. "They [GS] will have access to a large amount of resources, and can grow into a larger organization.... They might just use that as we've [SEAS] used it, to increase the quality of the students," he said. "There's a lot of things you can do with a deeper applicant pool."
On the other hand, Awn said, "I tend to think that's a bit of a red herring because Columbia College does its own kind of admissions very well. They wouldn't know what to do in dealing with non-traditional students."
To further attract applicants and support GS students, administrators have discussed increasing financial aid, which lags behind that of its two peer undergraduate schools, and expanding University housing for GS students.
"Most of us are financially independent [from our parents], so we get a lot less [aid] than CC students. That's something most GS students are very bitter about," Natalie Johnston, GS, said. "Any GS student would give up any other benefit just for that [financial aid being combined]. I mean, I would. That's been my biggest problem and I feel like I've been somewhat deceived."
The Task Force recommended a hybrid financial aid package for GS in which students with parental contributions receive aid comparable to CC students with alternate packages for those without access to parental contributions. The report also suggested providing expanded University housing for GS.
The Task Force concluded their report with the suggestion that, as happened with the creation of the Office of Student Affairs, GS student services could be integrated with those of CC and SEAS.
Among CC and SEAS students, the idea of GS becoming more socially integrated generates some unease. Daniela Cassorla, CC '10, said she thinks inherent differences in age and life experiences between the student populations of GS and the other two schools necessitate a separation of the services and functions the schools provide.
Administrators and students on the Task Force say they want to preserve what keeps GS unique while not impinging on the unique identities of CC and SEAS.
"GS has a unique feature of having a non-resident, part-time college experience," said Navratil, who added that a merger would not necessarily change the school's function or character.
"We don't want to amalgamate it [GS] in a way that causes it to lose its very special distinct functions and identity," Dirks said.
Further, Seth Flaxman, CC '07 and former CCSC president, said "I'm more concerned about how well an institution serves people than the ideological purity of the institution itself," adding that the proposal "does not mean that every CC student's apocalyptic fear of old people stalking their dorm hallways will come to life."
"If you really believe that non-traditional students who want a very traditional Ivy League education and who are as intellectually capable as any other undergrad," said Awn, " if you think they add an important dimension to the intellectual discourse and the community life of this University, then we should embrace them as equals."
Crunching the Numbers
A potentially significant factor for administrative integration is decreased costs, Rosenthal pointed out. "It may be that if you combine the two [GS and CC], you cut out a layer of administrative expense," he said.
Flaxman agreed, saying, "This could be a really cheap way to expand the College without putting more students into classrooms, thus allowing us to be more competitive against Princeton, Yale, and Harvard."
Dirks responded to such comments, saying that "It's not about downsizing.... It's about customizing the way in which we do these things so that we do it better."
Additionally, Cunningham said he believes that, at least in the short run, there will be increasing costs associated with the integration. "There's an infrastructural cost that is undeniable. We have to hire more professors, get more seats in class for core classes.... There will be a lot of growing pains," he said.
Devika Bhushan, Tom Faure, and Josh Hirschland contributed to this article.