Colorado College: Liberal Arts Differentiation the Block Plan

Strategic Insights Blog | September 1, 2014

Most colleges and universities in this country have adopted some kind of branding strategy to differentiate themselves from their perceived competitors, but many of these efforts have backfired or had little impact, notably among liberal arts institutions. This lack of clear identity among such institutions has consequences not only in student recruitment but also in institutional advancement. 

One notable exception is Colorado College. Since faculty unanimously approved the Block Plan in 1970 allowing students to take one course at a time for 3 ½ weeks (8 in an academic year), this signature educational program has increasingly appealed to students, evolved into a strong differentiator for the College in an increasingly competitive market, and enabled CC to raise its national profile and dramatically improve its enrollment results.

Jill Tiefenthaler, president of Colorado College and the former provost of Wake Forest University, is the first interview in a series of profiles we're planning featuring dynamic presidents around the country speaking on issues important to higher education. The thrust of the interview with President Tiefenthaler centers on the early beginnings of the Block Plan, its evolution and enhancement over time and why it remains a strong, substantial differentiator for CC in the crowded market of selective, national liberal arts colleges. As always, we invite your comments and opinions. Our sincere thanks to President Tiefenthaler for generously providing her time and thoughtful, candid remarks.

 

A&S: Many liberal arts colleges are struggling to identify and implement substantive academic initiatives that strongly differentiate their institution from other liberal arts colleges.  Why has the Block Plan (and the adventure spirit of Colorado) evolved into such a strong and effective differentiator for CC?

President Tiefenthaler: I think one of the main reasons the Block Plan has been such a strong differentiator for Colorado College is that it is a part of who we are. The Block Plan was created as a result of the desire and motivation of faculty back in the late 1960s to improve the quality of students’ education and not as a marketing strategy. It was an innovative academic initiative authentic to our roots— our history, character and the culture of the college.  

While many people have come to CC to study the Block Plan, it probably will never work as well for other institutions simply because it is authentic to our culture and character and has been from inception. It also is well aligned with the spirit of adventure that students seek when they come to our campus. Today students can plan a schedule that enables them to take advantage of all the things the Block Plan, Colorado and the rest of the world have to offer. These are some of the reasons the Block Plan has been the right differentiator for CC.

 

What were some of the early challenges of rallying the faculty, board, and others around the idea of developing an educational approach that allowed students to take one course at a time?    

The Block Plan wasn’t created overnight. It took several years for faculty to study and create a new academic approach based on the goal to provide a stronger, more personal education for students. It began with a faculty member saying he wanted to teach a small number of students over a shorter period of time. Of course, the disciplinary differences were a major challenge. Math and sciences had a harder time embracing the Block Plan for a variety of reasons. It was great for teaching languages with students immersing themselves in the language, but then how do students maintain this immersion once the Block was over.  

The accompanying administrative changes were also significant such as ordering books for different courses, getting inter-library book loans and reading materials when students had to have them in a day or two, not a week. There was just a much more intensive, immediate need for everything. Fortunately for the College and our students, the faculty who approved the Block Plan were less focused on the administrative challenges ahead. Instead they were singularly focused on the academic experience and how the Block plan would make it stronger, more personal, and better for students. 

Today I think it would be much more difficult for an academic initiative of the size and scope of the Block Plan to be implemented due to major financial and administrative considerations. But in 1970, teaching was paramount and there wasn’t a strong climate for scholarship. As a result, the Block Plan was created and over time it has helped CC develop an exceptional quality of teaching that is among the very best in higher education. It’s a demanding schedule for faculty, but a remarkable experience for students.

 

Over the years, how has CC refined, changed, improved its unique educational approach and taken further advantage of its location in Colorado?

If you look back at the early beginnings of the Block Plan, the emphasis was not on providing experiential learning opportunities like it is today. As travel and communication have become so much easier, students can take advantage of an almost limitless array of different experiential learning opportunities than people could have imagined back in 1970.  

In many important ways, the Block Plan is much more relevant for Millennials than for their baby boomer predecessors. Students who come to CC today have been extremely busy and over-scheduled in high school in terms of all the activities they’re involved in to get into college. So having the luxury to really pursue and give their complete attention to one thing at time through the Block Plan is something that is extremely appealing and relevant to this generation.  

Our plans for the future of the Block Plan include an important priority — more support for faculty to develop other kinds of experiential learning opportunities around the world. If you think back to the 1970s, education was all about knowledge acquisition. But with the advent of the internet, computers and other information technology, education is value-added and about skill acquisition. The Block Plan is perfectly suited for liberal arts skill development. For example, a student can be an artist for month and then a scientist studying organic chemistry the next month and immerse themselves in those worlds. 

Preparing students for the world of work and immersing students in a focused, intense way prepares them for the lives and careers they will have. The Block Plan is a great tool for helping students prepare for different careers and project-based work in the real world. I strongly believe that the liberal arts are more valuable than ever today, especially because students don’t know what they’ll be doing a year from now. They’ll be changing jobs more often and they’ll need to be nimble and adaptable in order to do that. In essence, CC’s Block Plan is the liberal arts on steroids where many things happen quickly and students must be flexible and adaptable to the different demands and intellectual challenges of each Block. This makes the experience for students more intense, relevant and valuable to their future lives and careers.

 

Institutions that take the long view when it comes to strategic positioning and stay the course often experience transformational results and become stronger and more competitive institutions. How has the positioning of the College around the Block Plan transformed CC over the years? 

Before I answer this question, it’s important to reiterate that the Block Plan has been successful for CC because we have stayed the course over four decades. Forty-five years is a long time to have stuck with it, and I’m glad we did.  

Now we’re in a time when everyone is talking about innovative disruption and that’s exactly what we did back in 1970 when the Block Plan was created. We stayed with this educational approach, refined and improved it. The competitive advantage we’ve achieved is that now CC is known nationally for the Block Plan and we attract students not simply from Colorado, but all over the country and the world for whom the Block Plan is a good fit. We’ve not tried to be all things to all students. We know that the Block Plan is not for everyone, but it’s a huge competitive advantage.  

There is a powerful process of self-selection that occurs among the students who are drawn to and enroll at the College and it has been reflected in our enrollment results as the Colleges admit rate has declined and selectivity has increased. This is in sharp contrast to the experience friends of mine had taking their daughter on an east coast tour of colleges. When they came home they told me how they were hearing the same messages from all liberal arts college they visited and how difficult it was to figure out what distinguished one from the next. The Block Plan has enabled the College to offer a unique educational experience that matters to students and is authentic to who we are as an institution. It’s enabled CC to attract and enroll students who really want to be here and are a good fit for the institution.

 

What advice would you give other liberal arts college struggling with how to differentiate themselves in a very competitive market?

My best advice: whatever path you choose as an institution, it has to be a substantive initiative that is authentic to what you are as an institution. When I became the President of Colorado College two years ago, it would have been a disaster had I tried to put in place traditional programs or initiatives — it never would have worked because that is not the kind of place we are. It’s simply not in our DNA. In conversations with other higher education leaders about their strategic plans too often the word “student” never comes up. The bottom line is that whatever we do as institutions, it has to be good and it has to be good for students. We have to start by asking ourselves, “What can we do that matters to students and creates true value and quality in their education and their lives?” In this day and age, simply doing something for marketing and branding purposes isn’t effective. Our efforts have to be founded on substantive initiatives that matter and translate into a better quality experience for students. Otherwise an institution will fail to improve students’ experience and have little chance of raising its national regard and profile.