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Michael Edmonson / Senior Staff Photographer

As General Studies Dean Peter Awn prepares to step down from his position at the end of this academic year, the nontraditional school is facing a critical turning point.

When Peter Awn took office as the dean of the School of General Studies 20 years ago, the school would have been unrecognizable to members of the Columbia community today.

Significantly smaller and with a decentralized curriculum, General Studies was, by Awn’s own description, not on par with Columbia College, which was steadily rising in academic rigor and prestige. But under his leadership, the school has grown increasingly integrated in the Columbia community and has come to provide an education increasingly on par with that of the more traditional Columbia College.

The school is now facing a critical turning point as the University searches for a replacement for Awn, who will be stepping down at the end of this academic year. Students, faculty, and administrators agree that Awn oversaw sweeping positive change for General Studies during his tenure, and that finding the right person to carry on his legacy will be essential to the the school’s future success.

But while the mission of General Studies requires that its students receive the same quality education as Columbia College—the other undergraduate school within the Arts and Sciences—there are significant differences between the schools that administrators are being forced to confront as Awn prepares to step down. Chief among them is the challenge of addressing the school’s perennial lack of funds that has left it, in stark comparison with Columbia College, unable to provide need-blind financial aid for its students.

“Even though we’ve been right upfront about the financial aid issue, that could make or break the school in the long term. There’s no choice about it,” Awn said in an interview with Spectator last fall.

And so Awn’s successor will have a weighty task in front of them: answering a series of questions that will determine the future of the school, including how much financial support the school can offer its students, who can and should attend, whether it should grow in size, and how it can manage the financial pressures the University places on it.

General Studies is a significant revenue driver for A&S—a notoriously resource-strapped organization—and is projected to bring in $90 million next year. But in order to claw itself out of the red, A&S needs to increase revenue, not additional costs such as financial aid—a constraint that General Studies administrators are acutely aware of.

“The ratio of expenditure to return to the Arts and Sciences is quite substantial, so they're already in a way doing quite well from us,” Awn said. “The irony is, our successes make our failures 20 times more glaring.”

This is perhaps one of the most glaring inequities between General Studies and Columbia College: While Columbia College provides need-blind financial aid to its students, many of those in General Studies struggle to pay tuition and make ends meet.

This issue is particularly salient given the population of General Studies—almost 40 percent of students receive Pell Grants.

Diane Kim / Senior Staff Designer

Awn and Executive Vice President and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences David Madigan argue that increasing the enrollment of military veterans contributes to the diversity of the school. But it also alleviates the school’s costs, as veterans’ tuition is subsidized by the federal government. The number of veterans in General Studies has increased by 21 percent over the last five years, now comprising 18 percent of the student body.

These unique aspects of General Studies continue to divert the school from the educational experience found in Columbia College, the roots of which can be traced to the initial differences between the two schools.

When Awn took office, the costs for General Studies students to take courses were significantly lower than for Columbia College students, excusing General Studies students from the need-blind mandate. But as costs steadily increased, this mandate was never implemented—resulting in a higher cost of attendance, but not a proportional increase in financial aid spending.

When Awn announced that he would be stepping down last November, he cited several important challenges that his successor would face: most pressingly, raising funds to provide better financial aid and secure student housing.

“Nobody around here is comfortable with the idea that in [Columbia College] it’s full need, but in this school it’s half need,” Madigan said. “This is not okay, and no one is wants it to be this way, but it’s a huge lift—to solve this problem is not within our power. So there needs to be a focus on how we get from here to there, so this is certainly something the new dean will need to focus on.”

Financial aid is an especially important problem for General Studies students, as the population skews older and many are juggling jobs, raising families, and often do not have parents to rely on for tuition money.

Students have noted that the lack of sufficient financial aid prevents them from taking full advantage of the Ivy League education they expected.

“Students work so, so hard to get accepted to this school with this idea, this hope that they would get financially supported, and then you’re here and your dreams are so close—and [administrators] rely on the fact that we’re going to make it happen … and that the finances aren’t going to stop us,” Alex Guarino, GS ’18, said. “Which is true, because it’s not going to stop us from attending the courses, but it is stopping us from fully enjoying our experience here at Columbia.”

Jacob Case, the General Studies Student Council vice president of finance, echoed this statement, emphasizing that General Studies students must make significant sacrifices in order to attend Columbia.

“It’s a bit disheartening to see how some students have to choose between paying for tuition, finding a roof to sleep under, and food,” Case said. “A student who has to worry about if they can eat, will they be evicted or how can they afford another course is just simply not going to be 100 percent in the zone.”

While administrators grapple with these financial issues that put increasing pressure on the school and its students, many faculty members have firmly asserted that the nontraditional backgrounds of General Studies students add an invaluable contribution to the classroom environment. The unique experiences of General Studies students can enrich class discussion and expose their Columbia College counterparts to new perspectives.

When Awn first took over as dean, it was more common for General Studies students to be openly struggling in classes they shared with Columbia College students.

“The challenge really was, and I think we take this very seriously, putting in the classroom people who are intellectually competitive with the traditional students, and if you can’t do that, we shouldn’t be in business, we really shouldn’t,” Awn said.

Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of Political Science Robert Jervis noted that in his international politics courses, the perspective of students who have experience abroad is especially valuable, and that most faculty members feel similarly about General Studies students in their respective fields.

“I think if you asked the faculty, could you abolish the [master’s only] program and it were revenue neutral, would you do it? I think most would say yes. If you asked them, would you abolish GS if it were revenue neutral? I think most would say no, I wouldn’t. So it’s a big difference,” Jervis said.

According to Classics Department Chair Deborah Steiner, General Studies students are “often the most highly motivated.”

“They make the undergrads see that there are people willing to make sacrifices for this kind of education,” Steiner said.

As administrators look to determine ways to improve financial support for students, options include increasing enrollment and expanding the dual B.A. program, which allows students to spend two years at a university abroad and two years at General Studies. But these potential paths would inevitably change the composition of the school and its role within the University.

Madigan noted that General Studies has seen some growth over the years, and that continuing to expand the school would provide more funds for financial aid.

“If we continue doing that, in any one year, we’re not going to make a huge increase in the size of the class, but 10 years from now, that balance between GS and the college would have significantly altered,” Madigan said. “Do we want to do that, do we not want to do that? I don’t know.”

Awn pushed back against the possibility of increasing General Studies’ enrollment as a way to raise funds, citing the school’s population as a reason to keep the community small.

“To me, one of the essential dimensions of our success is our size,” Awn said. “There is no value in becoming significantly larger. Because of the diversity of the backgrounds of the students, we need to have an engaged advising team, we need to be as user-friendly and accessible as possible.”

According to Madigan, the University is looking to expand the dual B.A. program beyond its current partnerships in Paris and Hong Kong. He said that most people perceive the venture as “a great success,” but acknowledged that increasing these opportunities would have a significant effect on makeup of the General Studies student population.

“What if we had 10 dual degree programs and half the students in GS were enrolled in dual degree programs? That would change the character of the place,” Madigan said “I think there are very interesting big-picture questions, and we need someone that could lead that discussion.”

It is clear that unless General Studies chooses to remain without need-blind financial aid, the school will have to stake its hopes on increasing fundraising efforts. Specifically, University President Lee Bollinger noted that the University is actively searching for a naming gift for the school—such gifts can bring in anywhere from $75 to $200 million. But each administrator emphasized the difficulty General Studies has experienced in securing substantial donations from alumni.

“We need to sort of double down our efforts to connect with GS alums and to have a significant fundraising operation that we have not had heretofore,” Madigan said. “We have tens of thousands of alums out there, and we have done some work to cultivate that base, but I think we can do a whole lot better.”

Despite the difficulties that come with leading a school facing the challenges that General Studies does, Awn said that he will leave is post satisfied with the progress the school has made in the last two decades.

“I've never been bored. Annoyed? Yes. But it’s been a real privilege to teach here and to be part of seeing GS really come into its own,” Awn said. “To me, that has just been incredibly gratifying.” | @jjspitz1

general studies peter awn arts and sciences david madigan