Nestled at the base of Pikes Peak, Colorado Springs features a spirit of adventure, outdoors enthusiasm, independence and learning opportunities galore.
So claim a handful of college guide books describing the city that is home to more than a dozen community and technical colleges, -- including Pikes Peak Community College, as well as the Big Three -- University of Colorado at Colorado Springs (UCCS), Colorado College and the United States Air Force Academy.
Mary Yates, the director of Campus Life at UCCS, offered these words of wisdom: "There is a great deal from which to choose and that is rare in many cities throughout the United States. The Colorado Springs community is fortunate to have that diversity in their offerings."
But what defines the campuses? The Air Force Academy, north of the city, is a self-contained campus that turns out tomorrow's elite military leaders.
The other large campuses are more difficult to define. From residential to commuter, liberal arts to vocational,
each offers something unique. But always, as PPCC student Danielle Sotomeyar sums it up, "Students are students."
Of rich hippies and stereotypes
Colorado College, or CC, is a private four-year residential liberal arts college just north of downtown -- practically the only such institution between rural Iowa and the Pacific coast. Three-quarters of its 1,900 students come from outside the state of Colorado.
Unlike many similar institutions, CC is in a fast-growing city with a metro population of half a million. "We are not a typical liberal arts college in a small town," said junior Andrew Cronin, a student tour guide at the admissions office.
The college is renowned for its academic excellence. The Princeton Review, the Fiske Guide to Colleges, Kiplinger's business magazine and Outside magazine all cite the college's high academic achievement. Peterson's Guide to 4-Year Colleges praises the school's liberal arts excellence, stating that because, in a day and age where people change careers seven or eight times, the liberal arts tradition at CC is "profoundly practical."
Every year, the admissions office works to bring "the most talented and most diverse" class of undergraduates to the college, said Mark Hatch, dean of admission and financial aid. With tuition costs alone at $28,644 this year, the college uses what Hatch calls a "very healthy financial aid budget" to attract talented students regardless of their socioeconomic means.
Colorado College also has a unique academic calendar, known as the "Block Plan." Under this system, professors teach and students take just one course at a time for three-and-a-half weeks. Each block is then followed by a four-day "block break," allowing students to "cleanse their minds," in the words of The Princeton Review, a national organization that specializes in standardized test preparation and providing students and parents with material to make informed decisions about college.
As for the cultural climate at CC, The Princeton Review describes students as "count[ing] among their numbers 'lots of rich New England students trying to pass as hippies,' 'Trustafarian ski bums,' and 'a very large crunchy contingent, most of whom want to do away with electricity, yet spend most of their time skiing at Vail.'" (Internal quotes represent comments from actual students to The Princeton Review.)
Hatch said that he read that description of CC when he began working at the college three years ago and that he understands the description first appeared a decade ago. "I would challenge The Princeton Review to come and meet our students," Hatch said. "They will meet some students who are from the East Coast, and they will meet some students who are affluent, yet I think our demographic has changed in the last 10 years."
Yet Hatch concurs that there is a culture of privilege on campus. Many variables perpetuate a privileged life of higher education at this school -- from the student body, most of whom are just-out-of-high-school, traditional-aged students to the college's structures for campus life in a self-proclaimed residential community. But saying that CC students are just a bunch of "rich, white kids" is a misconception, says Hatch.
However some students aren't as dismissive of The Princeton Review's description. "Let's be honest, yeah, that's present," said Cronin, the student tour guide who hails from Toronto, Canada.
Many students "try to dress like they are homeless," Cronin said. "That's the look, that's the cool."
Yet he maintains that "there's not a stereotypical CC student." When you walk into the student center, he said, you can see people straight out of a J. Crew catalog and other people straight out of a National Outdoor Leadership School course.
Renise Walker, a junior from Denver who also works as a tour guide, rejects The Princeton Review's stereotypes. "While some kids may do some of those things, there're students who do other things as well," she said. "And there are students who are completely different. "
Teens to their 80s
In north-central Colorado Springs, large contingents of both traditional and nontraditional students work to materialize their dreams at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
While UCCS is often overshadowed in the media by its partner school in Boulder, last year U.S. News and World Report ranked the school as one of the top five public universities in the Western United States.
Applicants face admission criteria of minimum ACT and SAT scores, as well as impressive high school grades.
Tom Hutton, director of University Relations, says the university seeks students of high ability with a desire to succeed.
Affiliated with the Colorado University system, students are often attracted to the Colorado Springs campus for the benefits of a CU education, taking particular advantage of the high-tech facilities and smaller class sizes offered at this campus.
Unlike the residential Colorado College, UCCS has been more of a commuter campus, with only 600 housing spaces available on-campus for a student body of approximately 7,390 undergrads -- 94.5 percent of which are Colorado residents. This fall, the university will open 300 additional spaces to increase its residential capacity. "We are trying to become more traditional and have more students living on campus," said Eric Gladding, a 2004 graduate and former resident assistant who now works as the school's undergraduate recruiter.
The limited on-campus residential life has resulted in a diverse student body. In addition to attracting the traditional straight-out-of-high-school students, the campus also has a sizeable population of nontraditional-aged students.
Students range from their late teens to their 80s. "Everyone can find their niche," says Tamara Moore, the director for Student Recruitment and Admissions Counseling.
Pinning a label on the typical student at this university is difficult, if not impossible. "In this job you learn not to stereotype because everyone can surprise you," Moore said.
One common denominator among students, however, is that most students work full-time or part-time, unlike at CC.
"UCCS definitely has an older population compared to CC because this definitely is a school that you can go back to if you already have a family," said senior Bonnie Goff.
Casey Burgner, a junior from San Diego, added: "The typical student? You go to school, you get all your work done, you go back home, work at a job, then come back and finish up homework late at night."
Opportunities for all
Pikes Peak Community College's three campuses are spread across town, each with their own distinct personality.
The college's oldest campus is the Centennial Campus, in the southern part of the city on Academy Boulevard. Its Downtown Studio Campus is just off of I-25's Bijou exit. The system's newest campus is situated in the northern portion of city limits, along Highway 83 near Interquest Parkway.
The system has approximately 10,600 students -- 78 percent of them come from Colorado Springs and another 17.5 percent are from other cities in Colorado.
Students notice a trend of differentiation between the three locations. "There is a little stereotyping between campuses," said Lisa Birnden, who is working toward her associate's degree in science.
"The north campus [Rampart Range] tends to be more affluent people, more money," she said. "The ones down south [the Centennial Campus], they seem to be working really hard just to pay the bills."
Ronda Burkhart, a professor of anthropology on the college's Centennial Campus added: "Here, we get a lot more military students and more older students.
"Rampart [Range] tends to be a younger campus, and Downtown tends to be more of the arts kinds of students," Burkhart continued.
The Colorado Collegiate Handbook, the guidebook that is published annually by the Colorado Council on High School/College Relations about its 35 member schools and that is designed to help Colorado students decide where to go to college, notes that Pikes Peak Community College's admission policies reflect the "belief that everyone who is able to successfully complete courses should be given the chance to attend college."
This open-campus policy provides the school an even broader array of students than at either CC or UCCS. Some students are traditional straight-out-of-high-school, pursuing technical or job-related education. Others enroll for two years with plans to transfer to a four-year institution. Others decide to attend after an interruption in their education -- be that vocation-, military- or family-related. Yet others enroll to simply take a course that interests them for personal enrichment.
Students at Pikes Peak have often established lives of their own beyond academia -- nearly all work full-time or part-time and some are raising families of their own.
The college stands apart from CC and UCCS as a true commuter campus, and as such, on-campus student life is almost nonexistent. The students' extracurricular activities take place off campus, says Troy Nelson, associate director of Enrollment Services and Admissions.
The school, he notes, acts as a nearby and more affordable option for higher education for many people.
"I don't think there is such a thing as a typical PPCC student," said student Dennis Schuler. "I've seen everybody here from kids fresh out of high school to seniors going back and doing studying. Everybody's just got a different story."
Other students shared this assessment. Jaimie Batton, who is working on her general studies requirements, called the typical student "just the normal everyday person trying to get ahead."
In the recruitment and admissions office, Nelson agreed, saying, "I think our students are geared toward focusing on schoolwork." And students who have transferred from this college to Colorado Springs' other large institutions have been "as strong academically or stronger than students who began at [UCCS or CC]," he added.
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