Second edition 1959

An American College For Adults
A Sociological Sketch 1)

By Hans L. Zetterberg

Table of Contents:

>> Chapter I. The Setting of the School

>>  Chapter II. The Organization Of The School
       >>  1. Students
       >>  2. Teachers
       >>  3. Administrators

>> Chapter III. The Background Of The Students

>> Chapter IV. The Background Of The Teachers

>> Chapter V.  Relations Within The School
>> 1. Relations Between Students
>> 2. Relations Between Students and Teachers
>> 3. Relations Between Teachers
>> 4. Some Administrative Problems

>> Chapter VI. Relations To The Outside World

>> Chapter VII.  Some Issues Facing The School

>> Appendix: Methodology

1) A shorter version of this paper was presented to the Fourth World Congress of Sociology in Milan and Stresa, Italy, September 8-15, 1959. American readers who might find some parts of the presentation too familiar to warrant mention might bear in mind the international audience of that occasion.

Funds covering a part of the cost of this study were made available by the Dean’s office of the School of General Studies at Columbia University through the courtesy of Dean Louis H. Hacker. Dean Hacker also furthered the study in a most helpful way by giving freely of his time to explain problems of the School and the philosophy of the School. A faculty committee consisting of Associate Dean Jack Arbolino (Student affairs), Professors Henry S. Miller (Economic Statistics), Robert J. Williams (Psychology), and Mr. J. B. MacKee Arthur (Development Officer of the School) read an early draft of this report and made valuable suggestions. The conclusions and statements, however, are the author’s own, and, of course, do not necessarily represent those of this advisory committee, nor of the School of General Studies, or of Columbia University.

Miss Imogen Seger served as a competent and inventive research assistant on the project for a period of four months. The enthusiastic cooperation of the students in my course, "Techniques of Social Research," during the academic year 1954-55 is also gratefully acknowledged and remembered. Much help and advice was given by fellow sociologists at Columbia University with experience in the School of General Studies. Professor William J. Goode, who could himself have done a much better study of the School than this one, was generous enough to encourage this one and share his perceptive insights. Professors Edmund deS. Brunner and Morris Zelditch, Jr., Doctors Louis Kriesberg and Natalie Rogoff, Miss Mary Jean Huntington, and Mr. Wagner P. Thielens, Jr., also gave advice and help. And finally thanks are due to the Office of the Dean of the School of General Studies and the Bureau of Applied Social Research for the use of clerical and machine facilities.

The School of General Studies is still in its formative years and in a process of rapid change. It is therefore essential to note that this study refers to the School during the middle of the nineteen fifties. The research was begun in the summer of 1954. A mimeographed version of this report was issued by the Bureau of Applied Social Research in the summer of 1956. In editing it for its present publication, I have enjoyed a perspective of a few years but no effort has been made to bring the account up to date.


This report presents a brief sociological description of a coeducational undergraduate college for adults, The School of General Studies, a division of Columbia University in the City of New York. A college for adults presents numerous variations from the ordinary undergraduate school, many of them obvious enough. But at the outset it is clear that such a school shares in many of the purposes, qualities, activities and problems common to all colleges and universities. Let us begin, therefore, with some very general considerations of the place of the undergraduate college in the contemporary American social structure.


1. The Setting Of The School

The prime concern of a university is, of course, to promote knowledge. This simple fact sets it apart from most other organizations. Administrative experts and consultants whose experience derives from business and government organization have collected much useful information, some of which is undoubtedly applicable to university organization. But no matter how much we know about other groups and enterprises, we are ignorant about universities until we learn a series of new facts related to this fundamental observation - the prime concern of a university is to promote knowledge. A business firm is concerned with making money, a government agency promotes order, a museum provides beauty, a church concerns itself with salvation. But a university promotes knowledge. The academic freedom it claims for itself is exactly the right to develop and teach knowledge regardless of the relation of this knowledge to economic profit, political order, religious dogma, esthetic considerations, et cetera.

A college for adults must, of course, be as strongly committed to knowledge as any college. There was a time when it was seriously doubted that this was feasible; the adult mind was assumed to be inferior to the young mind and unable to absorb knowledge in the amount and rate customary in a college. Research has shown, however, that such age differences in intellectual abilities are non-existent or negligible. 2) And the American experience of having older veterans from World War II attend college under the G. I. Bill of Rights gave numerous practical demonstrations of the success of adults in college.

Of course, knowledge is not the only concern of a college. Another commitment is to taste and to beauty. A college student is expected to write and speak in a clear, refined way, and to be able to judge the beautiful from the ugly in art, dress, and style of life. It is also frequently acknowledged that a college should concern itself with character and morals. Students are taught certain rights and values, although it is not easy to ascertain the impact of such character training. 3) Whether one can expect a college for adults to have any effect at all on taste and character is an even more difficult question. We shall later consider the obstacles an adult college encounters in making use of the extra-curricular activities that other colleges claim useful in teaching their students the style of life and character values that mark the educated man in the world of affairs.

A college also contributes to the maintenance of order by performing a special service of control in the society. This function is perhaps not as manifest and publicly acknowledged as other functions of a college but is nevertheless easy to document. A conventional college receives its students directly from their parents and releases them after four years to the job market or to graduate school. It acts, in a sense, as a foster parent for its students. If something happens to the student that the society does not condone, the American college is held accountable in very much the same way as are the parents. The college responds to this by controlling as many of the activities of its students as possible: it houses them, feeds them, entertains them, and counsels them while it educates them. Certain specific devices are used to gain the amount of control that American society expects a conventional college to exercise. They include: keeping students in class rooms from 12 to 18 hours a week; giving assignments to be completed between classes; sponsoring a huge number of voluntary associations and activities on the campus; and requiring students to stay in college for four years in order that they may be ready for adult responsibilities when released at about the age of 21. One should note that these are not necessarily academic requirements these are precautions taken in dealings with minors. It becomes an interesting question to investigate how a college for adults is able to depart from such practices of undergraduate education that derive from this guardianship over minors which is vested in other colleges.

All these commitments of a college - the primary one to knowledge and the secondary ones to taste, character, and order - depend on certain facilities. Class-rooms must be built, laboratories equipped, libraries maintained, teachers paid, and so forth. Like a business firm a college makes financial transactions and becomes concerned over income. Like a church it arranges solemn ceremonies and rituals which reaffirm its ideals. Like a state it has a machinery to enforce its rules and regulations. The personnel in charge of this framework are the administrators. But the key persons in a college are not the administrators but those concerned directly with knowledge. Knowledge, like other utilities, has its consumers and producers. Some make money, some spend it; legislators make laws, administrators and judges apply them; artists create beauty, connoisseurs enjoy it. In a university, the prime consumers of knowledge are students. They are expected to acquire a share in accumulated knowledge and also to learn the rules of disciplined thought. Teachers are also in large measure consumers of knowledge. They are required to "keep up" with the literature in their fields, a quite formidable task in modern days. The university teacher, however, is more than a living summary of the knowledge of an academic specialty. He is also a researcher who publishes articles and books. He is a producer of knowledge. Without proof that he can produce knowledge, no university worth its salt would hire or keep him. Indeed, a school at the university level is different from other schools in precisely this respect: its teachers are supposed to develop new knowledge.

Within the world of knowledge, one is ranked according to competence, that is, command of knowledge. (This again makes for great differences in comparison with the body politic where we are ranked according to power, or with the economy where we are ranked according to income, or with art where we are ranked according to taste, or with religion where we are ranked according to piousness.) Levels of acquired knowledge are measured and made visible to the world in the form of passed examinations. The more important steps on the ladder of knowledge are marked by conferred diplomas or degrees: the high school diploma, the Bachelor’s degree, the Master’s degree, the Doctor’s degree. And contributions to new knowledge are measured, for example, by a scholar’s bibliography and the reviews of his works.

The ladder of degrees is a fairly clear-cut measure. In general the holder of a higher degree knows more than the holder of a lower degree. In the United States, six regional accreditation boards set standards for colleges so that degrees from different accredited institutions are roughly equal in the competence they imply. Thus competence levels may be about as clearly distinguished as income levels, and probably rather more easily than levels of power, taste, piety, or morality.

Competence is usually acquired slowly and at a fairly regular rate. In the world of money, there are get-rich-quick schemes, and in the world of religion some churches or sects promise salvation overnight. The world of knowledge is different: there are no get-competent-quick devices. The slow and regular advancement in competence is particularly evident in the contemporary American educational system. The so-called "credit system" requires that a certain number of hours of class-room work ("points" or "credits") must be taken before a student can be given a degree. No matter how much a student knows, it is virtually impossible for him to go through an undergraduate college in much less than four years. And no matter how brilliant a dissertation a graduate student has produced, no American university is likely to grant him the Ph. D. unless he has spent two years in residence. Only after the doctorate, is recognition for competence less time-bound and regular. The regular advancement schedule prior to the Ph. D. that the American credit system implies sets it apart from traditional European universities, where, at least in the liberal arts, students can present themselves for examinations when they ‘feel ready’ and where class attendance, while desirable, is rarely a strict necessity. We shall see later how the American system is put under a strain when applied to adults who are in a hurry to acquire the insignia of competence.

Academic competence opens the door to many rewarding activities in society. It can be negotiated into high positions in the economy, and college education is an investment that yields increasing dividends with the passage of time. In one study it was shown that those who had their Bachelor’s degrees for about ten years had an income twice as much as the national median, and after thirty years they did nearly three times as well as the average. 4)   Competence also seems negotiable into political power; the odds to hold a post as high level political decision maker are about 800 to 900 per cent greater for college graduates than for non-graduates. 5)   It is of course true that men of much money and power usually have other assets in their background in addition to a college education, but in the face of the size of these figures it is hard to argue against the notion that a college degree significantly alters a person’s life chances, and virtually assures him of a very comfortable middle class life. It is against the background of the easy ways in which education is translated into money and power in the United States that one can understand the political conservatism and complacency of American students. In aristocratic or colonial societies in which university students find themselves barred from economic or political positions one might well expect students on the barricades. The American students, however, are confident that they will inherit an upper middle class role in America and they are only rarely radicals.

But academic competence is not equally distributed in all groups and strata of the society. In the United States men have more education than women, whites more than Negroes, Protestants more than Catholics, those from higher classes more than those from the working classes. A major political theme of recent decades has been that of equal access to higher education. Great advances have been made toward this goal. This ‘democratization’ of higher education has occurred simultaneously with and been dependent on high expansion of facilities. Any index used to measure this expansion of higher education - number of colleges, number of teachers, number of students, investment in college property – tells the same story: since World War II the United States has at least doubled its facilities for higher education. While this expansion has materially reduced the educational inequalities in terms of sex, race, religion, and class, it has at the same time increased the inequalities of age. The expanded facilities have been open primarily to young people. In the Standard Metropolitan Area of New York and Northern New Jersey there is 33 per cent greater likelihood of finding a male college graduate in the 25-29 age group than in the 45-54 age group, and 92 per cent greater likelihood of finding a female graduate in the younger age group.6)   Thus older men and women without college degrees find themselves at the market places of society faced with increasing cadres of academically certified competitors, many years their juniors. One possible answer to this situation is college education for adults. In 1950 in New York City alone no less than 16,855 men between 25 and 29 years of age, a category clearly averaged for college, or 5.4 per cent of the entire age group, attended undergraduate colleges. 7)

The New York Metropolitan area has perhaps the largest number of organizations devoted to knowledge in the world. The Manhattan telephone book lists 470 research institutes and the area has 81 colleges of which 44 grant at least Bachelor’s degree or its equivalent. 8)   A handful of these schools have made special provisions for adult students. A leader in this field is The School for General Studies at Columbia University.

The School of General Studies has been accredited by the strictest of the American accrediting boards. The School thus differs from so-called "university extension programs", which provide lectures and correspondence courses to adults in subjects parallel or akin to undergraduate college courses. Such extension services are common at American universities, and, indeed, the School of General Studies grew out of such a program which Columbia University opened in 1910. But when it was reorganized in 1947 as the School of General Studies, the orientation of the School became very different from that of an extension service:

The philosophy of the School rests on a legitimate distinction between "adult education" and "college education for adults". While extensive programs of "adult education" are obviously necessary, their purpose and standards differ markedly from the carefully organized program, controlled admissions, and sequential work implicit in the phrase "a college education for adults". 9)

The authors of this programmatic statement conclude that the proper function of the School of General Studies is to provide the latter.

A history of the School has been written by John A. Burrell. 10)  It clearly shows the origin of the School of General Studies in the University Extension. However, to trace the contemporary development of this heritage into a genuine college for adults we need to employ sociological research techniques. The study that follows is based on information gathered through participant observation, counseling interviews, qualitative interviews, analysis of published and unpublished documents (usually of a later date than those available to Burrell), and a mail survey of students enrolled in the Spring Session 1955. See the Appendix.

2) See, for example, H. Sorensen, Adult Abilities: A Study of University Extension Students, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1938.

3) The experiences on the American scene in changing students’ values through college attendance are analyzed in Philip E. Jacob, Changing Values in College, Harper & Bros., New York, 1957.

4) Ernest Haveman and Patricia Salter West, They Went to College, Harcourt Brace, New York, 952, p. 30. For a fuller analysis of the relation between education and income, see Edmund deS. Brunner and Sloan Wayland, "Occupation, Labor Force Status and Education", The Journal of Educational Sociology, vol. 32 (1958), pp. 3-31.

5) Donald R. Matthews, The Social Background of Political Decision-Makers, Doubleday, Garden City, 1954, p. 29.

6) 1950 Census of Population, vol. 11, Characteristics of the Population, Part 32, New York, Government Printing Office, Washington, 1952, p. 235.

7) Ibid. p. 220. Unfortunately the census does not report college attendance by persons 30 years of age or older. A general discussion of the national scene in this respect is found in J. P. Dyer, Ivory Towers in the Market Place: The Evening College in American Education, Bobbs-Merrill, Indianapolis, 1958.

8) Department of Health Education and Welfare, Education Directory 1957-58, Government Printing Office, Washington, 1958, pp. 95-98 (New Jersey) and pp. 99-113 (New York).

9) Arthur W. Macmahon, et al.) The Educational Future of Columbia University, Columbia University, New York, 1957, pp. 79-80.

10) John Angus Burrell, A History of Adult Education at Columbia University, Columbia University Press, New York, 1954.

11) It should be immediately acknowledged that it would have been impossible to do this study without opportunities for participant observation. The author had taught full-time in the School of General Studies for one year when the study was initiated in 1955 and continued half-time teaching in the School until 1957, that is, during the course of the project. He attended faculty meetings and luncheon meetings of advisors to students and participated in conferences with the sociology staff of the School as well as regular meetings of his Department. The qualitative information about the teachers emanates from a large number of informal conversations that the author had with colleagues on the faculty and in the administration, conversations in which the latter (mostly unwittingly) served as interviewees or informants. In these activities as a participant observer all efforts were made to incorporate information from as many departments as possible. It is, however, in the nature of the case that his own Department – that of Sociology – provided more clues than the others.

Furthermore, the author served as advisor to students in the School of General Studies for two and a half years and conducted in this capacity a large number of counseling interviews. His advisees consisted of a random selection of non-matriculated students and of all matriculated students majoring in anthropology and sociology. Most of these interviews covered routine academic matters but many branched out to confidential reviews of the ways college fitted into a life career or confessions about any or all aspects of life in the School of General Studies. In the latter cases notes were taken and later used to illuminate statistical material collected through other methods.

The same use was made of sixty qualitative interviews collected by students attending a class in sociological research techniques. No random selection of respondents were made here; it was considered more important that the interviewer could talk in an intimate way with his respondents. Consequently, most of the respondents were friends or acquaintances of the interviewers. However, the rule was instituted that no respondent could be a sociology major. Thus, an opposite bias of selection was introduced here to the one in the counseling interviews.

Demographic information about students and staff and about the rules of the School were collected through published and unpublished administrative documents of the University. It is a pleasure to report that no information we asked for was ever withheld or refused. Many statistical items about Columbia College, a comparison group that we often found useful, come from an unpublished survey by Wagner P. Thielens, Jr.

Finally, a mail survey of students was conducted in the Spring of 1955. At that time the School had 1,390 matriculated students and 4,030 non-matriculated students. The survey included almost every third matriculated student, and almost every sixth non-matriculated student. They answered a six-page questionnaire. With appropriate follow-ups the survey rendered a return of 70.3 per cent of the matriculated students and 63.4 per cent of the non-matriculated students. The latter figure was considered too low to yield reliable results. However, it was estimated that the non-matriculated degree students in the latter sample (26 per cent) responded at the same rate as the matriculated students. Thus, the mail survey rendered a 70 per cent response of degree students which was considered adequate for the establishment of major statistical trends. The non-degree students (extension students and returning bachelors) did not respond to an extent that warranted inclusion in the study. The sample of degree students consisted of 445 respondents. In calculating any figure based on this sample, a conventional statistical procedure was used to adjust for the fact that the matriculated sample was twice as dense as the sample of non-matriculated degree students.

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