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October 23, 2008

CGS marks 50 years as a school

Tomorrow, the College of General Studies is celebrating its birthday. Planned in tandem with the annual alumni weekend and homecoming activities, the CGS Student Government and current students, along with CGS alumni and their families, will celebrate the 50th anniversary — birthday cake and all — of the establishment of the college as a full-fledged Pitt school.

Actually, the college traces its roots back to 1911, three years after Pitt moved from Downtown to Oakland, when the quaint-named Department of Afternoon, Saturday and Evening Studies was established to offer a limited number of off-campus courses.

By 1920, Pitt had expanded its off-campus offerings to 19 locations in western Pennsylvania and Ohio, including Erie and Youngstown, with inadequate access to higher education.

In 1932, Pitt established the University Extension Division, which became known informally as the evening program, with its director reporting directly to the chancellor.

On March 11, 1958, as recommended by Chancellor Edward Litchfield, Pitt’s Board of Trustees approved the establishment of the School of General Studies, primarily as an alternative for adults to pursue continuing education. Then chair of the board Gwilym Price wrote that “for the first time in this community, adults desiring a college education may enroll in degree programs designed to meet their needs, their capacity, their ambitions.”

The School of General Studies, Price said, was designed to serve a definable student body of adults — now termed nontraditional students — and to provide an undergraduate program equal in quality but distinct in design from Pitt’s traditional liberal arts degrees.

Forming the school was long overdue, Price added. “All too frequently, part-time students have been second-class citizens in programs shaped to the needs of another generation. Now there is an alternative. We think it is an exceptionally hopeful one.”

Though hopes springs eternal, the school has had a rocky history, in part reflecting the demographics of the Pittsburgh region with its widely varying population and employment rates, and in part due to increasing competition from neighboring institutions.

Enrollment peaked at an astronomical 18,930 in 1974-75, the vast majority of whom were part-timers.

Academic majors came and went, programs were added then withered away, the number of staff varied wildly and the mission of the school evolved with the changing job markets, the decline of steel and other industries and the rise of the need for technology training for workforce development.

By 1972, for example, J. Steele Gow Jr., then the school’s dean, noted that “the field of adult education is so challenging that the staff of the School of General Studies will continually study ways to implement pioneering programs especially designed to meet the demonstrable educational needs of adults living in this community.”

Flexibility had been a key component of the school’s mission.

The school was renamed the College of General Studies in 1981 to reflect that its degree was comparable to an Arts and Sciences degree.

Now, according to its mission statement, CGS “promotes the cultural and economic ambitions of the region by providing regional and nontraditional students, life-long learners and other clients access to University of Pittsburgh undergraduate educational resources and programs. CGS serves students who are seeking distinctive instructional programs and life-long learning opportunities, and promotes a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship.”

According to Kelly Otter, associate dean of the college, “CGS is strong because of its roots in both tradition in the liberal arts and the value of innovation that leads to the development of new and timely programs. The notions of the evening program and part-time study of the early and mid-20th century have evolved into a multi-faceted center of higher education with the goal of making the academic resources of a research university available to a variety of nontraditional students through a variety of modalities.”

Fifty years ago, Otter noted, CGS offered general education majors in humanities, social science and natural science in the evening. Over time, the school’s reach was extended to Saturday classes, distance education courses and satellite campuses.

“In 2008, we offer these same programs, as well as pre-professional programs such as media and professional communication, and administration of justice, at multiple times and locations,” Otter said. “This year we are offering about 65 courses across disciplines through PittOnline, our distance education initiative. We are also growing our satellite campuses in Butler County, Mt. Lebanon and Monroeville to offer students outside the Oakland area opportunities to complete general education requirements and degrees at these locations.”

The crown jewel of CGS’s on-campus facilities, Otter said, is the McCarl Center for Nontraditional Student Success, which opened in 2002 and houses a career resources library as well as student government and alumni society offices. The center hosts workshops and seminars, and provides a home away from home for students.

In 2007, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute was established in CGS with a $1 million endowment from the Bernard Osher Foundation. “The most important goal of the OLLI is to build a solid academic program and a community of learners for adults 55 and older, who are usually retired,” Otter said.

CGS has expanded its reach within the University, as well, by offering certificates with a number of other units, including the College of Business Administration, the University Center for Social and Urban Research and the University’s Center for National Preparedness.

“The marriage of faculty collaboration and industry outreach is the key component to any academic program in continuing education,” Otter said.

Now, more than 14,000 alumni later, the future of the college is bright, she maintained.

“The future of adult education in the region is full of opportunity. Many states, like Pennsylvania, are faced with aging populations and increasing needs for a college-educated workforce,” Otter said. “Only one in three working adults in the region and the nation holds a bachelor’s degree. Members of this group, many of whom earned college credits but did not finish a degree, are commonly referred to as adult or re-entry students, and fall into the age bracket of 25 to 50.

“From my personal experience with these students, they are ambitious, focused and expect to make the most of their educations.”

CGS is expanding its celebration by offering a host of activities during National Nontraditional Student Week, Nov. 3-8. For more information, contact Sherry Miller Brown at 4-7683.

—Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 41 Issue 5

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