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Op-Ed: Returning to trade school model would hurt college, students


As a loyal alumnus of Columbia College, I observe with both sadness and great interest the current turmoil the school is experiencing.

I graduated from Columbia in 1974, which was a big year for Columbia because that is the year it became accredited, which allowed me to go on to earn an MFA from Rhode Island School of Design. I remember talking with my fellow students at that time, and we all were kind of curious how being a “real school” would affect Columbia because it had always been a kind of anything goes, alternative institution up until then.

The advantages of attending an anything goes, alternative institution are many. One of the most important for those of us who were there at the time was that you could jump right into your area of interest (in my case photography) with nearly zero prerequisites. No foundation course requirements, no core general studies mandate, very little of that bothersome liberal arts stuff that schools like UIC made you take before you could even think about taking a course in your real field of interest.

We students (and many of the faculty) thought of Columbia as a wild, adventurous, and experimental trade school where you came, took whatever courses you needed to get the job done (or get the job) and moved on. No need for anything else; just cut to the chase, get the skills and split.

The problem for me with that trade school model, especially after Columbia became accredited and started issuing “real” degrees, was that I had graduated with an enormous amount of knowledge about photography and very little knowledge of anything else. I could talk about f-stops with the best of them but literature, poetry, science, even art history? Embarrassingly thin. I didn’t have to take those courses so I didn’t. Simple as that.

As the first member of my family to achieve a college degree, I felt it was important to be an “educated” person, but didn’t feel that old Columbia gave me that. Acquiring technical proficiency is useful but short-term. Photography is a great example of this. Being educated lasts the rest of your life.

As time passed and Columbia evolved, I was pleased to see that it had greatly fortified its core requirements, developed a healthy liberal arts component and proved that it could remain a truly exciting place for creative students to flourish while simultaneously providing a broad foundation of basic knowledge and honed thought.

Now, unfortunately, Columbia is financially caught between a rock and a hard place. To deal with this the administration is seriously considering devolving to the trade school model of decades ago by greatly reducing core liberal arts requirements so students can basically “take what they want.”

This is a truly bad idea. If it is implemented Columbia will devalue its degree, graduate less capable students and graduate fewer students because the old “get the skills and split” attitude will resurface.

A bad decision now could kill an institution that I remain proud to call my alma mater.


Jay Boersma, Class of ‘74

Submit an op-ed of no more than 850 words here or email editorialboard@columbiachronicle.com

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