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The first meeting of the Columbia Scholastic Press Association was organized at Columbia University in the fall of 1924 and grew out of several gatherings of editors and staff members from secondary schools in the metropolitan New York area. As a result of these early meetings, a contest to evaluate student-edited newspapers and magazines was organized in February 1925. One hundred seventy-nine publications entered. The results of that competition were announced at a convention held at Columbia on March 12-13, 1925, with 308 delegates in attendance. Those delegates voted to ask the University to support the official establishment of the organization, adopted its official name, and established its journal, The School Press Review. The University agreed, and CSPA conventions have continued each year since 1925 at Columbia.

The CSPA was Columbia's third initiative in journalism, following the founding of its School of Journalism in 1912 by bequest of the noted newspaper publisher, Joseph Pulitzer, and the awarding of the first Pulitzer Prizes at Columbia in 1917.

Since the official founding of CSPA, hundreds of thousands of newspapers, magazines, and yearbooks have received critiques, and close to 400,000 delegates have attended the annual conventions, conferences, and workshops. In 1935, the Association added yearbooks to the types of publications eligible to receive evaluations. In 1940, CSPA began an annual fall conference for yearbook editors and advisers, which in 1983 was expanded to include all types of publications. A separate annual convention for college editors and advisers was created in 1978, in co-sponsorship with College Media Advisers, Inc. and continued as a joint operation through 2001. From 1978 to 2001, more than 6,000 college delegates attended this spring gathering at a midtown Manhattan hotel.

CSPA expanded its activities in 1982 by adding an annual summer journalism workshop for high school editors and advisers. Since then, more than 5,000 delegates from across the U.S. and from schools overseas have attended these one-week, residential sessions held on the Morningside Heights campus in late June. The workshop was expanded to include virtual sessions in the summer of 2020 and they continue today.

Services provided by the CSPA include annual written critiques of individual student publications as well as the  annual fall conference, spring convention, and summer workshop. CSPA also published an online magazine, The Student Press Review, which was a continuation of its printed journal that was founded in 1925. CSPA currently has plans to revive the publication in blog format.

The highest awards given to publications by the CSPA each year are its Crown Awards. Further citations include Gold Medalist, Silver Medalist and Bronze Medalist for critiques.

For individual excellence, the Association also judges more than 10,000 individual entries in its annual Gold Circle Awards for student journalists. More than 600 college students and 600 high school students receive awards in the 175 categories of this competition, which originated in 1984.

CSPA Founder Col. Joseph Murphy following a major address from former U.S. President Harry S. Truman

CSPA Founder and Director Col. Joseph M. Murphy, with former U.S. President Harry S. Truman.