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  • Beth & Tim Manners

Updated: Oct 24, 2022

Somehow, high-flying Colorado College manages to stay below the radar of a good chunk of exceptional students who just might find it to be the perfect academic environment. With an admit rate of about 14 percent, it certainly should catch the interest of those seeking a school for the most inquisitive of intellects. Given the wild popularity of nearby CU Boulder, one might think CC would at least bask in some reflected energy from that Colorado cool.

Its relatively obscurity, despite its exacting standards, might have something to do with its small size: just 2,000 undergraduates in total. Yet other top schools of similar size and selectivity -- Williams, Vassar, Middlebury, for instance -- seem to enjoy a relatively higher profile. It could be intentional on CC’s part; there’s a certain appeal to be in-the-know. Or, maybe it has something to do with CC’s purposefully original and distinctive academic framework.

If you’ve never heard of Colorado College then you almost certainly are unfamiliar with the “Block System.” The idea is that you study just one subject at a time, intensively, for three-and-a-half weeks. Classes run from nine until noon, with the rest of the day left open for anything else you need or would like to do. You take your final or submit your paper, get four-and-a-half days off, and then it’s onto a new subject. The pattern repeats four times per semester, over two semesters per year. Thirty-two classes are required to graduate, half from outside one’s major.

It’s definitely not for blockheads.

The idea is both to immerse yourself in a sole focus for a defined period of time while also enjoying the flexibility to pursue other interests during the course and the approximately four days of free time that follow it. The Block Plan may or may not align with your learning style, but clearly Colorado College is onto something meaningful and very different for those who dare to be different. It is one of about a half-dozen North American colleges playing with blocks (Cornell College in Iowa, not to be confused with the ivy-league university, is one of the others).

One of the most common complaints we hear from students after touring multiple schools is that one seems pretty much like all the rest. It’s true: Many schools tend to say many of the same things. Sometimes their campuses look alike. Not to be outdone, CC’s campus is among the most beautiful we’ve seen; as green as the eye can see with that amazing mountain range on the horizon. It’s in Colorado Springs -- what’s not to love about that? Yet its physical attributes, the thing that we tend to notice first, is a small matter in CC’s scheme of things.

When visiting schools, we always urge our students to listen for the quirks. There’s almost always something, although many, if not most schools, do not do a great job of highlighting what sets them apart. Whatever you conclude about Colorado College’s iconoclastic theory of excellence in education, you must admit that it and its students cut a path less traveled.

Another major refrain we hear from students is that they won’t consider a small school because “it’s not much bigger than my high school.” This is a deeply flawed premise that most small colleges, and especially Colorado College, blow to smithereens.

The student population at any small college is the only thing that might be similar to your high school and especially an innovative school like CC. Your college experience will be nothing like high school, regardless of its size. Whether it’s CC’s Block Plan or something more conventional your personal growth will know few boundaries, if any. In other words, you’re on your own and that is life-changing.

The thing about smaller schools, and Colorado College especially, is that you can’t hide. Classes are small and camaraderie is big. Come prepared for a CC seminar style that demands your full engagement with professors and 16-18 fellow students. That’s certainly challenging for introverts especially, but it’s hard to imagine a higher-quality setting if you are going to college not just to earn a degree but to stretch, challenge and explore the world outside your safe space. No question but that it is an intense, but high potential, environment.

Colorado College extends its Block philosophy to its study-abroad program to spectacular effect. If you elect to study in Greece, for instance, you might board a sailboat and follow the path of Odysseus while analyzing Homer’s epic poem. Can you imagine? An odyssey within The Odyssey. Field study is also a major feature at CC, with 100% of students participating, and 70% within their first year.

Our tour guide, Will, who identified with gender-neutral “they/them” pronouns and asked each student to state identities similarly, may personify or be a metaphor for CC’s odyssey of individuality. Will began the tour by pointing out that part of the campus was built on Native-American land, made a brief pitch for reparations, and did not shy away from mentioning the political tensions between the largely progressive student body and its rightward-leaning neighborhood.

A sociology and theater major, Will immediately underscored the strong arts presence on campus. Our very first stop, albeit from a distance, was Packard Hall, which houses the music and arts department, and features classrooms tricked out with the latest audio/visual equipment, lesson and practice rooms as well as recording studios, a music library and performance hall.

Will also highlighted a thematic minor called The Book, which explores printed volumes as text, art, history and media. Other thematic minors are a "thing" at CC. Will cited CC’s biennial Dance Workshop as a favorite event because nearly everyone on campus gets involved in producing it, regardless of dancing ability. The creative streak ran through other aspects of our tour in ways big and small, even including a grand piano in dormitory common space. Other unusual CC assets are a fully-working cadaver lab (!) and a rock-climbing room.

It’s become standard fare for guides to explain why they chose the school at tour’s end. Will didn’t do this and seemed stumped when someone in our group asked the question. Perhaps it’s because the reasons to choose CC (or not) are so plainly self-evident and internalized in the campus philosophy and culture that it doesn’t require further explanation.

After the tour we met for about an hour with CC’s newly arrived dean of admissions, Karen Kristof, who spent the previous three decades in admissions at the venerable Smith College. While munching on Jimmy John subs she so thoughtfully provided, we rolled through a wide range of admissions-related topics.

Karen happens to be the admissions counselor for Connecticut, is very familiar with our high schools and is nothing but eager to hear from students intrigued by CC’s nearly unique format. While acknowledging that it is not for everyone, she was emphatic that those who connect with it, drop-dead love it.

Beyond academic fit, also consider the financial aspects (100% of calculated need is met but merit aid is limited; the school is not “need blind”) and the social, given CC’s intimate ecosystem. Culturally, the school sees itself as open-hearted, non status-quo, committed both to questioning authority and making the world a better place.

As with most smaller and highly-selective schools, CC’s process is holistic and places a premium on grades and rigor, since obviously you’ve got to be able to hack it academically. Test optional since 2019, the prevailing sentiment is that test scores are not a great predictor of CC success. Rather than putting time into taking the boards multiple times, Karen advises investing in personal growth activities instead, something you enjoy, even if it seems unimportant, like, say, mushroom hunting.

CC prizes “something different” in your background, perhaps best expressed in your personal statement. Just as important, Karen expects something meaningful in the “Why CC” essay; not just that you are intrigued by the Block Plan, but rather why you think it’s right for you and how you plan to apply it. As with most highly-selective schools, your best chance is to apply Early Decision because the admit rate drops into low single-digits by the time Regular Decision applications are on the table.

As we left the admissions office, we noticed something we don’t see at many, if any, schools. A vertical video monitor, with a beauty shot of the campus in the background, listed the first names and hometowns of each prospective student visiting campus that day. A small thing at a small school, that says something big, if you’re open to hearing about it.

(Editor’s Note: Compared to our average post about a college tour, it took about twice as many words to describe this “small” school adequately).

  • Beth & Tim Manners

Updated: Aug 17, 2021

Like a dream-school mirage, gazpacho-red rooftops poked through the tree-line as we hurtled down the final stretch of the not-so-lonesome highway into Boulder, Colorado. There it was … couldn’t miss it … could only be the mysterious university that captures the imaginations of so many of our students from across a spectrum of academic aptitudes and aspirations.

After we parked our silver-white rental Mazda and paid for its space (eight bucks!), we stepped into what might be the most consistently conceived campus on earth. If that’s an overstatement, it’s not by much. Other than a handful of the university’s earliest New England, Gothic-style structures, each and every building was rendered in matching rough-hewn red sandstone, punctuated with generous windows trimmed in a tasteful limestone and topped with undulating Iberian-inflected tiles.

The prevailing architectural style at CU Boulder is improbably known as Tuscan Vernacular Revival and the vision of its loveliness has been unfailingly sustained through the school’s expansion over more than 100 years. With a handy backdrop of a certain world-famous mountain range, the net effect is less that of a top-notch research university and more a first-rate resort.

Our tour guide, Coyle, a neuroscience-psychology major with a minor in leadership and who was as unpretentious as they come, lost no time joking about a brand-new dorm’s resemblance to a world-class auberge. We weren’t invited inside (hey, we’ve been thrown out of better places), and instead were ushered into a perfectly fine but honestly humdrum and very small sample dorm room. Points to CU for presenting a realistic impression of what a first-year student is most likely to experience.

The tiny quarters may have been intended as a metaphor for the image CU seemed intent on projecting: a very big school (about 30,000 undergrads) that does its best to render its impressive resources in bite-sized pieces.

This begins with living accommodations, and the option known as RAPS (Residential Academic Programs) to take small, 15-person classes in your residence hall with other students of the same major. Living Learning Communities (LLCs), meanwhile, offer the opportunity to “live and learn” with classmates based on a particular academic theme.

Each first-year student is also assigned an academic advisor who offers guidance on selecting classes and other helpful tips via zoom or phone before the school year starts. In year two, students get an advisor based on chosen major(s).

As CU is a big school, students will see their share of large, 350-person lecture halls, but as is often the case in such circumstances, learning assistants roam the aisles to answer questions or offer other help, while grad-school teaching assistants host breakout sessions to provide additional support. Coyle said that something like 80% of classes have fewer than 50 students and offered assurance that classes get smaller as the years go by.

CU ranks among the nation’s largest research universities and, according to Coyle, every professor conducts it, meaning every student has an ample chance to join in the fun. She, herself, did cancer research involving fruit flies and charmed us with her memory of removing spinal cords from cockroaches to study how stress affects sleep patterns. After emphasizing that research pursuits are voluntary, a tour-dad asked if the cockroaches were also volunteers. Dad-joke laughter ensued.

Speaking of dads, grandads and maybe even great-granddads, Coyle dropped that the Rolling Stones once played the annual WelcomeFest Concert for incoming freshmen. This was back in 1981 and not the Beatles, but still. She also made sure we saw the buffalo-shaped swimming pool outside CU’s recreation center. One of nearly 30 LEED-certified structures on campus, the center's pool and skating rink have a symbiotic heating-cooling relationship. The literally glistening basketball court there is punctuated by a prodigious wall of windows that allows an almost surreal view of the nearby mountain range.

Toward the end of the tour, we stopped at the gates of the 50,000-seat stadium where the CU Buffalos roam (and nobody ever sits down, Coyle said). It's also where Ralphie, the school’s live mascot -- a full-grown female buffalo -- runs. Before it ended, we paused at the Norlin Quad, where Coyle told us about the campus’ six libraries. She also mentioned that the school removed its blue-light system because 99% of calls proved to be pranks. CU instead doubled down on police patrols.

Coyle highlighted the Laughing Goat Café as a campus favorite and suggested having lunch at The Sink, a shabby-chic pizza joint in the nearby neighborhood known as The Hill. President Obama once ordered a pepperoni and sausage ‘za topped with black olives, green peppers, and red onions there and then proceeded to splash it all over himself, sending the Secret Service into a mad scramble to find a fresh shirt.

As we headed back to the parking lot, thinking about which pizza to order at The Sink (the Buddha Basil is amazing), the small mystery of this university’s magnetic hold on so many of our students resolved itself: It is impossible not to like CU Boulder.

  • Beth & Tim Manners

Nestled among the Rocky Mountains just outside its namesake metropolis, University of Denver certainly is a sight to behold when it is 93 degrees above zero outside and the campus is buried under ten feet of sunshine.

Dry heat, we kept telling ourselves. Dry heat. Not so bad. We’re told the winters are relatively pleasant, too, thanks to the humidity-challenged chill, and heavy snowfalls that sometimes appear out of a clear blue sky and then melt away just as suddenly. Allegedly.

Our first college tour since before the pandemic left much to the imagination. It was difficult to suppose what studying in Denver might be like when the Black-eyed Susans are not vibrating in the sun and the amber waves of grain (or just grass, perhaps) can't be seen rolling in gentle, warm breezes. The classrooms, too, were silenced by summer, the pathways and quadrangles equally empty.

We could only surmise what students might be like based on the potential DU Pioneers on our tour, who represented a surprisingly diverse array of geographic if not demographic roots -- from as close as the host city, down to Arizona, over to Hawaii and back to New Jersey.

Our bright and sunny guide, Brooke, an engineering major, hails from the Lone Star State, as we recall. Her energy and enthusiasm rode high, even for a college tour guide. Perhaps she is a representative sample of the student body, but even if she’s not, it’s not hard to see why she seemed almost Rocky Mountain high on the school.

Let’s start with the obvious: University of Denver (or DU in the inexplicably dyslexic shorthand which similarly asserts itself at the nearby University of Colorado-Boulder, aka CU) is a gorgeous green campus, framed by those mountains, that is easy to love. It embodies a perfect balance of just about everything. It is a relatively small school (about 6,000 undergraduates) yet it lives on a somewhat large stretch of campus. It dates back to 1864, although many of its buildings look like they were built yesterday … either because they were, or if not, thanks to state-of-the-art renovations.

Most striking was the nearly brand-spanking new Dimond Family Residential Hall, which just opened in 2020. We’ve visited so many buildings formerly known as dormitories that often we stay outside while the less initiated experience the typically dimly lighted hallways and cramped, cinder-block aesthetics. This new-fangled “residential hall” is nothing like that. If not quite evoking a five-star hotel, the thought entered our minds.

Dimond's sparkling interior was as full of light as our tour guide herself. The walls were decked in shades of retro-avocado, the floors in ersatz hardwood and the trim in gleaming maple. Brooke made sure we knew that the sunsets are spectacular at Dimond and the mountain view from the corner room where she lived freshman year was to die for.

As if that were not enough, she dropped that there’s a rooftop bar, for those 21 and up. The just-opened Community Commons, meanwhile, home of a cornucopia of a food court, was all omelet stations, alongside vegan specialties, pizza, pasta and whatnot. The Commons also houses event spaces and lounges for students and faculty alike. We then toured the Coors Fitness Center, saw the hockey arena (DU’s #1 D-1 sport) and a spectacular pool, set against a mural of the Rocky Mountains.

Brooke highlighted the freshman seminar groups designed to introduce incoming students to college studies and professors, but also to potential friends. Our first post-pandemic tour did not include an information session, however, which is probably why we didn’t hear as much about DU academics as we might have otherwise.

DU does offer an online info session, posted on YouTube, which describes the school as a research-based, liberal-arts institution that encourages a well-rounded academic experience that enables mixing and matching majors and minors and trying new things. It offers a trimester, or quarterly, system, in which students typically attend three out of the four quarters (most students do not take classes in the summer quarter).

The school year starts the day after Labor Day and runs through Thanksgiving, and then unfurls a whopping six-week break until after New Year’s Day. A roughly week-long spring break interrupts two, 10-week quarters that end in early June, quite a bit later than most other schools. Other fun facts: About 80% of DU students do an internship, 75% study abroad. Care to guess which club is DU’s most popular? No, not the Alpine Club. It’s Dungeons & Dragons.

Many of our students are quite definitely set on either a city school or a green campus. As we strolled through DU’s stereophonic universe, we could hear birds chirping through the left ear and trucks roaring down the avenue through the right. The Denver and mountain skylines competed for attention. Not much of a contest, but you get the idea. It's all in the blend.

The mountains beckon hikers and skiers, while a train ticket from campus to downtown shops, restaurants and parks is included with tuition. The University of Denver invites a college experience that spans the best of those worlds centered on a mountain range of academic opportunities to elevate just about anyone's aspirations.

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