Columbia College Chicago was founded in 1890 as the Columbia School of Oratory by Mary A. Blood and Ida Morey Riley, both graduates of the Monroe Conservatory of Oratory, (now Emerson College, in Boston, Massachusetts).

In 1904 the school changed its name to the Columbia College of Expression  and in 1927, the college became a sister institution with the Pestalozzi-Froebel Teachers College.

The school left its partnership with the Pestalozzi-Froebel Teachers College in 1944 with a revised name, Columbia College, and  Norman Alexandroff  serving as its president.

In 1961, Mirron (Mike) Alexandroff, became president and created a liberal arts college with a progressive social agenda. For the next 30 years, he built Columbia into an urban institution that offered coursework taught by some of the most creative professionals in Chicago.

Columbia was awarded full accreditation in 1974 by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools and it purchased it first building in the South Loop at 600 S. Michigan.  In 1984, Columbia received full accreditation for its graduate programs.

In 1992,  Dr. John B. Duff was named president and during his tenure, the school changed its name to Columbia College Chicago, expanded its educational programs, and added to its physical campus in the South Loop.

In 2000, Dr. Warrick L. Carter served president and ushered in new student-based initatives such as Manifest and Shop Columbia, partnered with local universities to construct the University Center of Chicago, purchased new campus buildings, added new curricula, and built Columbia's first newly constructed building, the Media Production Center.

In July 2013, Dr. Kwang-Wu Kim became Columbia College Chicago’s tenth president. He holds a doctor of musical arts degree and an artist diploma from the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University. He is an outspoken advocate for the arts, a proponent of expanding the role of creative practice in society, and seeks to change the approach to how artists are educated.

Building on its heritage of creativity, innovation, and strength, Columbia College Chicago continues to challenge its students to realize their abilities according to the school's motto, "esse quam videri" – to be rather than to seem and encourages its students to author the culture of their times.