The Block Plan and Colorado College

To many college applicants there must be something illicit about the block plan, especially as it is practiced by Colorado College.

The Block plan, which was incorporated into Colorado College’s curriculum in 1970, allows a student to take one course at a time. Each block is 3.5 weeks, beginning on a Monday and ending on a Wednesday four weeks later. Then there is a 4.5 day block-break, so students can decompress after the intensity of the immersion and go skiing near Pike’s Peak, rafting on the Colorado River, or visiting the four corners to study the Anasazi Indian remnants.   

Classes meet daily from 9 am till 12 noon, with the balance of the day filled with lab work, field trips, research sessions or any format that the teacher feels best suits the subject matter. If you assume for each hour spent in class, a student spends 2-3 hours in preparation, each evening contains at least 6 hours of homework. The block requires intense labor, but then college is not easy, nor intended to be.

Each block contains 54 hours of classes, not including the supplementary activities that might accompany the class. Under the quarter system, a standard class, which on average is 1.6 hours, meets twice a week for 10 weeks, totals 32 hours. Under the semester system, the standard class is 1.3 hours, twice a week, for 16 weeks, and totals 41.6 hours.  

These numbers tell us that the Colorado College block contains substantially more time in its 3.5 weeks than a comparable semester course. By the end of the semester, a Colorado College student has taken 4 blocks of courses, amounting to 216 hours of class time, while the student in a semester program has totaled 166 hours among a four class course load.

Granted, the Block Plan is not perfect. Certain subjects cannot be studied adequately within 1 block increments. Foreign languages fall into this category. A student notes in her blog on the Colorado College website that learning Mandarin in 3.5 weeks is too limiting. The Physics department is equally in a quandary about how to negotiate the block time constraints. For these subjects students often take 2-3 block increments to better address these demands.

Some students worry that the Block Plan is not be well perceived by graduate schools. According to a former instructor at Colorado College, “I have never heard that graduate schools think there is a lack of rigor in the block system…block participants show dynamic energy coupled with the ability to focus…” Colorado College’s website mentions not only do 86% of students graduate in 5 years, but 71% attend graduate school within 5 years of graduation. Furthermore, its alumni have accumulated 14 Rhodes Scholarships, 31 Fulbright Fellowships, and one Nobel Prize. Apparently something is sinking in over those 3 ½ weeks.  

Another aspect of the block that can be considered either positively or negatively, is that in 3.5 weeks you either really delve fabulously deep into a subject, or, if the class doesn’t meet expectations, it’s over fairly quickly.

If the idea of going to a school that incorporates the block plan is appealing, and Colorado College is outside your scope, there are a handful of other colleges that use the block. Cornell College in Iowa—founded by the itinerant Cornell, whose other namesake university is in Ithaca; another is the University of Montana Western, a member of WUE (Western University Exchange), the only public university in the country to offer a block program, which it calls ‘Experience One,’ Its annual tuition cost to a California resident is $4,635.

While the Block plan isn’t for everyone, it’s perfect for many. A study by Macquarie University in Sydney, which implemented block in its graduate school, concluded that those unfamiliar with block have the ‘most reservations about the format,’ while those experienced with it rarely express dissatisfaction.  

Be bold, break from the familiar, and discover that focusing on one course at a time might prove a luxury worth partaking of a block of four edifying years.