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. Mary Blood became the school's first president and served until her death in 1927. The women established a coeducational school in the Steven's Art Gallery Building at 24 E. Adams Street.

The school changed its name to the Columbia College of Expression in 1905 and added coursework in teaching to the curriculum. In 1927, the college became a sister institution with the Pestalozzi-Froebel Teachers College and moved to seventh floor of what is now the 618 South Michigan Avenue building, later purchased by the College in 2005. In 1934, the school focused on the growing field of radio broadcasting.

In 1944, the school left its partnership with the Pestalozzi-Froebel Teachers College and changed its name to Columbia College, with Norman Alexandroff as its president. During the late 1940s, Columbia broadened its educational base to include television, journalism, marketing, and other mass communication areas.

In 1961, Mirron (Mike) Alexandroff, became president and created a liberal arts college with a "hands-on minds-on" approach to arts and media education with a progressive social agenda. For the next 30 years, Alexandroff built Columbia into an urban institution that helped to change the face of higher education, offering 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 the Fairbanks Morse Building, 600 S. Michigan (currently the Alexandroff Campus Center). Classes were first held in the renovated South Michigan building in 1977. In 1984, Columbia received full accreditation for its graduate programs.

From 1992 until 2000, Dr. John B. Duff served as Columbia's president. 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 became president of Columbia College Chicago. Under his leadership the College created new student-based initiatives, such as Manifest, the annual urban arts festival celebrating Columbia's graduating students and Shop Columbia, where students can showcase and sell their work on campus; partnered with local universities to construct the University Center of Chicago; purchased new campus buildings; added new curricula; and oversaw Columbia's first newly constructed building, the Media Production Center.

On July 1, 2013, Dr. Kwang-Wu Kim will become 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.