It Could Be Denver

The Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) held its semi-annual conference in May in Denver, As part of that group, I visited several colleges of interest.


University of Colorado at Boulder

The University of Colorado at Boulder (“CU-B”) is located 30 miles northwest of Denver in the city of Boulder (107,000). The city is self-contained, which is very helpful because the promised light rail line to Denver remains a mirage.

Fortunately, Boulder is in a beautiful valley within two hours of some of the finest skiing in the world. The weather is advertised as providing about 300 days of sun each year. Boulder itself is a foodie, microbrew, green town that is one of the most sought after suburbs in Colorado.

CU-B’s strengths make it an attractive choice for students from every part of the country. It should be on the shortlist of every student who wants to become an astronaut or aerospace engineer; you can view CU-B’s alumni list here:

U.S. News ranks its aerospace engineering program at #12; the programs ahead of it are much more selective. And CU-B is not shy about reporting that the same ranking service chose its graduate physics department as #1 in the nation in Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Physics, ahead of MIT, Harvard, and Stanford.

STEM in general is a priority on campus. See for information on the university’s attempt to improve teaching and learning. Of course, many other universities are trumpeting similar initiatives, but CU-B’s appears to be ambitious in scope.

CU-B also has interesting programs outside of STEM. One of them is the environmental design program, which repackages the existing architecture program within a larger School of the Environment and Sustainability. Here is the university’s description:

Students enroll in studios, lectures, and seminars taught by 30 faculty with both academic and professional expertise. They design innovative “green” buildings and infrastructure and they work directly with cities to figure out how to integrate social, ecological, and economic needs to support a sustainable future. Students apply state-of-the-art educational technology including computing tools, digital image databases, fabrication equipment, and advanced media to make a persuasive case and bring their ideas into light. Layer on top of all this the resources of the Boulder campus—from sciences, social sciences, humanities, arts, and technology fields—and we offer an educational opportunity like no other.

Students interested in architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning, and design generally may find this approach intriguing.

Are there downsides to the CU-B experience?  Two come to mind. First, CU-B may become a victim of its own success. For example, the engineering school is planning to decrease enrollment next year to alleviate overcrowding – applicants may find it harder to win admission. Second, the popularity of the school contributes to a high cost of living:  Boulder is a very expensive place to live, and students who leave the dormitories for rental housing (71% of them this year) will need to budget accordingly.

How difficult is it to get in?  Admission requirements vary by program. The numbers for the College of Arts and Sciences for the middle cohort (25% to 75%) are GPA 3.37 to 4.0, SAT 1170-1350, and ACT 24-30. The numbers are similar for admission to the environmental design program. However, the engineering program raises the bar:  GPA 3.87-4.0, SAT 1290-1470, ACT 29-33.

The male/female ration is 56/44, perhaps fueled by the popularity of STEM at the university. The OOS number (percentage of out of state students) is 39%, suggesting that out-of-state students may need to post better numbers than those cited above.

CU-B is a typical large public university with some uncommon strengths, set in one of the most beautiful places in the country. It merits your attention.


Colorado School of Mines

They still tote the rock.

Decades ago, when your correspondent was applying to college, Colorado School of Mines was known as the finest engineering school in the West. It may still deserve that title, but it is not nearly as well known. This is a shame, because for certain STEM fields tied to the earth, there are few better in the country.

“Mines”, as it is known, is a public university serving 4,500 undergraduates and 1,300 students. Located in Golden, Colorado, a town of 20,000 people – with light rail access to Denver and Boulder – the school was founded in 1874, two years before Colorado achieved statehood.

The school notes that Mines was originally devoted to the study of – wait for it – mining.

Courses offered to students during the early years of Colorado School of Mines included chemistry, metallurgy, mineralogy, mining engineering, geology, botany, math and drawing. The focus of the early academic programs was on gold and silver, and the assaying of those minerals.

According to Wikipedia, in 1906 the school opened the first experimental mine in the nation for teaching purposes.

Its mission has broadened considerably today:

The nexus between the earth, the environment and society’s need to generate and distribute energy in an economic and sustainable way is central to Mines’ specialized mission. Faculty and students at Mines research new frontiers in resource exploration, extraction and processing, renewable energy production and distribution, advanced materials, and environmental impact, mitigation and remediation.

Mines welcomes students who wish to study engineering, computer science (the school has its own supercomputer), biochemistry, applied math and statistics, geoscience, or closely related fields. A complete list can be found here:

STEM students only need apply; those who are looking for a college with a robust liberal arts offering should look elsewhere. Indeed, Mines’ own application – it does not accept the Common Application – has no essay requirement.

Our tour guide gave us a window on the sort of students who go to Mines. She said that she decided on Mines after attending a summer day program where they built catapults. She said that it was the only place where she did not have to explain to her peers what a catapult was, and how to build it. She felt at home at Mines.

Indeed, teamwork and inclusion are important at the school. Professors teach all classes, which is unusual for an engineering school. The atmosphere emphasizes teamwork over competition. This should not be surprising, as almost every student has a job upon graduation. According to staff, 220 companies interview at Mines every year; and more are put on a waiting list in case a recruiting firm can’t make it. The gender ratio is 75:25, but the school also fields the largest collegiate section of the Society of Women Engineers.

Traditions are prized here. Each year about 1,000 students “pull” an ore cart from Golden to Denver, where someone at the Capitol reads from a proclamation declaring it Engineering Days in Colorado. Every student is given a hard hat upon entry. Although these usually just sit on a closet shelf, they can come in handy. We were hit with a hailstorm during our tour. Some students who really had to cross campus could be seen running across one of the quads, with the hail bouncing off their hard hats. So Colorado offers 300 days of sunshine, plus occasional hailstorms – it could be worse.

And what about the rock, you ask?  Incoming freshmen are expected to bring along a 10-pound rock from their hometowns. (I’d like to see students explain this to airport security.)  In a ceremony aided by upperclassmen, the students haul their rock up the mountain overlooking their campus, and place it in the whitewashed “M” at the top. Upon graduation, they are invited to go back to the “M” and retrieve a rock to take with them on their journeys, which probably ends up sitting on a shelf next to the hard hat and the Mines’ silver-plated diploma. The whole place has a bit of “old school” atmosphere that is hard to resist.

As for getting in, the numbers for the middle cohort (25% to 75%) are GPA 3.74 to 4.0, SAT 1370-1470, and ACT 29-32. The OOS percentage is 35%. These numbers are typical for good engineering schools.

Two additional facts stand out. First, admissions are rolling, and they open early – in September. Although students can still get priority admission status through November 15, they should aim to submit their application the moment admissions open. This is easier than it appears because, as noted above, there is no essay requirement. Second, Mines will give AP credit sparingly, and in many cases, only after the student passes a “challenge exam” in the subject.

Mines is a hard-core (sorry) engineering school with a small and cohesive class, professors who teach students, a few unusual majors (explosives engineering, anyone?), and an excellent location with the mountains nearby. For the right student, this place could be a perfect fit.


Colorado College

We travel 75 miles south from Denver for our final college, but the trip is worth it.

It is unusual to find a college which differs from others, not just in academic offerings, but in the structure of the curriculum itself. Colorado College (“CC”), in Colorado Springs, serving 2,100 undergraduates, is one of a handful of colleges in the U.S. where the academic year is based on a Block System – students take one course at a time, for three weeks and half weeks, before proceeding to the next. Students take eight Blocks each year, plus optional summer sessions and a half-Block over the winter break.

CC’s pitch for its Plan is compelling:

Want to study for your biology midterm without worrying about filming your documentary, reading 72 pages of The Odyssey, or training your psychology rat?

Why not take just one class at a time? 

Do not assume that CC is a trendy experiment. The College was established in 1874, and is graced by a large and stunning Norman Romanesque chapel built in 1931. A glance around various dedications on buildings reveals an endowment funded by the Packards (the “P” in “H-P”), the Waltons, and other luminaries. The campus is pretty, and the setting near Pike’s Peak is hard to beat.

The Block Plan was started in 1970, and has become the best-known feature of a strong liberal arts college. Students take one course Monday through Friday, usually from 9 a.m. to noon, with labs in the afternoon. Unless enrolled in a lab course, students have afternoons and evenings to themselves and each other.

Each Block period runs for 3 ½ weeks, ending the Wednesday of the fourth week; students get a four-day weekend before the start of the next Block.

One major advantage of this schedule is that professors can schedule trips into the field without conflicting with other courses. Students pursuing outdoor fields of study (e.g., archeology, geology, environmental studies, wildlife biology) are particularly well-served by this arrangement. CC mentions film students traveling to Hollywood and art students going to Paris – you get the idea. And with a 10:1 student/teacher ratio, education can be personal, to the point where professors often invite their class to dinner at their homes.

By the way, CC’s outdoor location at the foreground of the Rockies is perfect for its plan. Like all the other Colorado schools, there is plenty of sunshine and opportunity for winter sports.

CC attracts many students who are frustrated by having to multitask constantly in high school. These are students who prefer to “dig in” to a topic. They can immerse themselves fully in one subject. If they hate the class, they can either exchange it for another (on the first or second day) or grin and bear it, knowing that each Block only lasts for just over three weeks.

Students and counselors alike should read the College’s definition of the “right fit” student here: The school tends to attract “intense” students. They may not be quirky, but they are definitely looking for something different. For most of them, that difference is the opportunity to fashion their own education, block by block. For such students, CC represents a wonderful opportunity.

Of course, great opportunities are not available for everyone. Only 17% of applicants are admitted, although the SAT/ACT numbers are not overly demanding:  averages of 1340 and 31, respectively.

Note that the annual cost of attendance is a hefty $65,000; students should investigate financial aid opportunities (most need-based) carefully.

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