The tenure of W. Merle Hill – the 13th president of Christian/Columbia College from 1965 to 1977 – was, in the words of college historian Polly Batterson, “an earthquake, shaking the institution to its very foundation while preserving its roots and heritage.” While there is certainly much about Columbia College that has stood the test of time, it isn’t hard to see why Batterson wrote those words five decades ago. In the span of four years, the Board of Trustees made four sweeping changes to an institution that, at the time, had been in existence for nearly 120 years.

On May 21, 1969, the Board voted unanimously both to (1) accept men into what was founded as Christian Female College, and to begin the process of (2) migrating from a two-year junior college to a four-year institution.

President Merle Hill is joined by college faculty and leadership at the groundbreaking of a new dormitory, Banks Hall, that opened in 1971.

On October 25 of that year, the college’s governing body (3) adopted the name Columbia College to begin use on July 1, 1970. And less than two years after that, President Hill held a meeting with a United States Army education services officer named Ted Messick that would ultimately become the (4) start of what would become the Extended Studies Division – now known as Columbia College Global.

Enrollments, which were numbered in the hundreds at the time, grew immediately; by the time of Merle Hill’s passing in 2015 at the age of 89, Columbia College boasted an enrollment across its Day, Evening, Nationwide and Online programs of more than 25,000 students.


Messick’s meeting illustrated a need that Columbia College was quickly able to fill. The first classes at Troop Support Command Headquarters (TROSCOM) in St. Louis in 1973 were born out of the military’s desire to have an armed forces that was not only educated, but continued to gain knowledge. Within months, Army personnel from as far as Cape Girardeau were driving up to St. Louis to take evening classes at TROSCOM.

Thus began the most rapid period of growth in the college’s history, both on the military and civilian sides. By 1975, the college had established a presence in more than 150 locations in 40 states. [The exponential growth

created its own problems for the college. Because of billing and other quality-control issues, the Board of Trustees actually imposed a moratorium on creating new locations for a period of several years.]

The college eventually settled into a more sustainable operations plan for its Extended Studies campuses, as they were known at the time. In addition to its locations on military installations, Columbia College became an attractive option for civilian adult learners. The college’s location in St. Louis has been in existence since 1973, in Jefferson City since 1974, and the Evening Program on the college’s main campus opened in 1975. Of the college’s nearly 40 current locations, more than half were opened in the 20th century.

The shift also fundamentally changed who is the average Columbia College student. In the 1960s, it was a 19-year-old; today, with the increase in non-traditional students, the average age of a CC student is 31.

Each location has different demographics; when the Lake of the Ozarks location opened in 1990, there were few higher-education options available in that part of the state. Today, hospitals and other healthcare organizations flock to the Lake location to hire its nursing graduates. The college’s locations in Denver and Salt Lake both educate students from several countries around the world.


As Instructor of Human Services Michael Perkins said in the Winter 2019 issue of Affinity, change is part of Columbia College’s DNA.

“We have a history of being innovative, and I think it’s important to try things even if they don’t work. Columbia College has always been nimble, willing to take calculated risks when others wouldn’t, and that exploring, pioneering mindset has set us apart from other schools.”

There’s no better example of that innovation with the college’s foray into online education in October 2000. “It was primitive, but we did it,” Perkins said. Back then, there were 10 total sections of online classes available to students; today, there are more than 1,100 sections offered during each eight-week session. Because of that ease of accessibility, students can earn an associate degree in 20 months, a bachelor’s degree in three-and-a-half years, and a master’s degree in only 12 months.

For the fifth straight year, more than 80 percent of Columbia College students took at least one online class, and students who exclusively take online courses comprise the largest segment of the student body. The top majors online mirror those of the rest of the college – general studies, business administration, criminal justice, human services and psychology – and has tracked similarly for the last five years.

Within the past two years, the college has added degrees in cybersecurity, biochemistry, organizational leadership, health services and health sciences. In addition, thanks to the college’s exclusive partnership with the National Association of REALTORS® forged in 2019, Columbia College now offers certificate, associate, bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in various real estate disciplines.


Looking ahead to the future of Columbia College, there are two pivotal guideposts that will take place in the next couple of years that will define the direction of the college for the next five to 10 years, says Dr. Piyusha Singh, provost and senior vice president for Academic Affairs. The first is a strategic plan that will inform the academic program (see page 10); the second is the hiring of a permanent president to replace Dr. Scott Dalrymple, who left the college in November.

“The academic piece of [the strategic plan] can’t stay stuck in stone – we’re going to have to evolve based on the workforce that our industries need, and where we think the plan will want us to be in five years,” Singh says.

That evolution – to look at the needs of industry and tailor the college’s programs to meet that workforce – is a bit of a change from what might have happened previously at the college. “As we develop programs, we look at need, and we look at what we can do well,” she says. “We look at a combination of what we think is going to be a growth industry both in terms of jobs and how our liberal-arts focus fits with that.”

As an example of that liberal-arts focus, the college’s cybersecurity program doesn’t just train students how to code; through psychology classes, it can also provide insight into how cybercriminals might think of attacking a network. Other core college courses can teach the critical-thinking and communication skills to interact with their co-workers in a more productive manner.

In the end, Singh summarizes the key to Columbia College’s success for the next 50 years in the same word that has made it such an attractive option for the last 50: flexibility.

“We have so many options for how someone can finish a degree, we have flexibility in terms of accepting credit, and we have low residency requirements,” she says. “I think our customer service and the fact that we have all these locations has probably helped us become so big in the online space.”


Highlights in CC History

  • January 18, 1851 – The Missouri General Assembly approves the charter of Christian Female College.
  • 1901 – The first Ivy Chain ceremony takes place.
  • 1911 – Dorsey Hall is built.
  • 1912 – Rogers Memorial Gate is built. It remains the central entrance to campus today.
  • 1929 – The charter is revised to reflect removal of “Female” from the official name of the college.
  • 1963 – The Columbia College Alumni Association (CCAA) is organized.
  • May 21, 1969 – The Board votes to accept men into the college. Kirk Williams is the first and only male resident student to enroll for the Fall Semester.
  • July 1, 1970 – The school’s name officially becomes Columbia College. The first full coeducational class – with 54 men on campus – begins studies that fall.
  • March 1973 – With evening instruction taking place at Troop Support Command Headquarters (TROSCOM) in St. Louis, the concept of nationwide locations begins at Columbia College.
  • October 31, 1973 – A separate civilian location in St. Louis opens; it remains the college’s longest-running nationwide location.
  • January 22, 1974 – The college begins operations at Fort Leonard Wood, making it Columbia College’s oldest continuing military location.
  • March 3, 1975 – The college opens its landmark Evening Campus, forever changing the trajectory of both the college and the lives of thousands of adult learners.
  • October 1, 2000 – Columbia College becomes a pioneer as one of the first schools to offer college instruction over the internet. What began with 10 online classes now has grown to more than 1,100 courses each semester.
  • January 6, 2020 – The college’s most-recent location opens at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota.