Colorado College: low-key liberal arts amid high-tech

Back in the late 19th-century days of the Cripple Creek gold rush, many of the prospectors learned the latest techniques in assaying and blowpipe analysis during Prof. William Strieby's winter science course at Colorado College.

But nowadays, this small liberal arts college, while still strong in science, is not accenting education in today's high technology.

''The college is more than a hundred years old, and its educational program has not changed dramatically,'' says Gresham Riley, college president. ''There's no reason why the advent of electronics and high technology in this city should cause us to alter the fundamental educational thrust of our program when there is a continuing need within our society for liberal-arts colleges and universities.''

Many instititutions around the country are boosting technical programs to impress high-tech firms with their ability to supply scientists and engineers - and appropriately so, in the case of technical universities.

But this Colorado college, in a serene and tree-lined older residential neighborhood that seems light-years away from the sprawling architecture of the high-tech plants north and south of the city, is going its own way.

Dr. Riley subscribes to the Jeffersonian ideal of higher education - as preparation for informed participation in a democracy. ''Citizens today are expected to have informed opinions on a wide range of difficult issues,'' he says, including genetic engineering, nuclear power, right-to-life legislation. ''Narrowly educated technocrats'' can't be expected to provide the answers, he says.

As the Sunbelt develops, the Riley thesis holds, more of these difficult questions will be faced here - hence the need for liberal-arts schools like The Colorado College, of which there are few in the Rockies.

Dr. Riley sees liberal arts schools as more than just producers of philosophers, however. He says liberal-arts training makes good business sense, too. He cites a study of career patterns within AT&T which found that 50 percent of workers with liberal arts and sciences backgrounds showed signs of being promotable into middle management, whereas less than 35 percent of those with business training showed such signs. And less than 25 percent of those with engineering backgrounds gave indications of being able to move into middle management.

The Colorado College is a Rocky Mountain manifestation of a tradition that has spread across the country from Williams and Amherst to Oberlin and Carleton to Reed and Pomona, but which has its roots in New England. With one eye on the Ivy League, the founders of the Colorado college borrowed the tiger from Princeton for a mascot. When the school got into early financial trouble, it was some Massachusetts Congregationalists who came to the rescue.

The college president exhibits a photo of Cutler Hall when it, in and of itself, was the campus. The college-Gothic building looks as if it could have been uprooted from a quiet corner in, say, Harvard Yard. It stands utterly alone on the prairie, with the Pikes Peak range behind it, like a New England spinster holding herself primly erect in her whalebone corset.

The Colorado College is a ''national school'' in terms of the distribution of its student body, only one-third of which comes from Colorado. California, Illinois, Minnesota, New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut provide the largest out-of-state contingents.

The controversial New York Times Selective Guide to Colleges 1982-83, a copy of which was recently displayed prominently on the Dr. Riley's coffee table, called his school ''the best small liberal arts college between the Midwest and California.'' One campus wit, however, commented that this description ''may leave some people questioning if there are any other members of so narrow a category.''

At a time when the small private liberal arts school is widely perceived to be an endangered species, The Colorado College is holding its own. The ''yield'' for this year's freshman class - that is, the number of accepted applicants who in turn accept the school, was up 5 percent over projections. The reason is partly cost: the comprehensive annual fee is only $8,500 this year, at a time when $10,000 is not unusual for other such private schools. And general academic quality and the presence of the Rockies are other attractions.

The ''block plan'' is also given credit for much of the pull. Under this program students take one course at a time for 3 1/2 weeks, a total of nine courses over the academic year.

This 1970 innovation was found to cause professors a lot more work but to be worth the extra effort, so the school has stuck with it. It has not been widely imitated. But a 10-year review of the plan in 1980 found that 80 to 90 percent of first-year enrollees and over 90 percent of the transfers cited the block plan as one of their chief reasons for picking the school. The plan makes field work easier; a geology professor can take his students out to the Rockies without worrying that they have to get back to History 305 at 2 p.m. And outside experts who couldn't spend a semester on campus can afford to visit for a few weeks.

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