Nedda Gilbert, MSW, Educational Consultant, and Author
These two schools are among a small group of colleges commonly referred to as the "hidden Ivies," so first off congratulations! I understand your quandary!
As I'm sure you know, it does not get much better when it comes to finding two elite schools with a strong focus on academic excellence in the liberal arts. You have chosen well. Both schools are small and have a vibrant and diverse student body. Both are thought of as offering a progressive, intellectually oriented community. Both offer standout academics! Each would agree that a primary goal is to teach students to think analytically and critically. Ok, I guess this has not helped you much.
However, there are some fundamental differences.
If rankings and prestige are factored in, Vassar is ranked many notches higher than Colorado College — assuming magazine and book rankings matter to you. My own feeling is that in this case, it's a matter of what bumper stick might look better on your car. I don't believe fundamentally that Colorado College is in any way inferior to Vassar. As you may know, Vassar was founded along with it's sister colleges of the time — Smith, Wellesley, Bryn Mawr, and Mount Holyoke and was thought of as an equal to the traditional Ivy League colleges where young men were studying. Right or wrong, the Vassar name still holds onto that early historical prestige as a founding college in the nation (albeit well deserved), and conjures up images of ivy covered buildings, and rich American history where the elite went to study. However, these days Vassar is a progressive, co-ed university with an incredibly diverse student body, and a sizable number of students on financial aid. Also unique to Vassar, is that faculty live in each of the nine student residences. Only a handful of colleges in the nation feature this. This offers truly unique opportunities for independent study, mentoring and a nurturing educational experience.
But oh, the comparison between the two gets tougher: Colorado College offers something truly one-of-a-kind in the world of college — the block program. This offers students an opportunity to burrow deeply and intensely into one subject for 3 1/2 weeks without the distraction of juggling three or four other classes at the same time. One block is equal to one class, and there are 4 blocks a semester, 8 a year. This either will appeal to you or not and may make your decision easier. Most college students do struggle with the juggling aspect of college study and student life. This is a very appealing way to streamline and have academic focus. Instead, of just jumping from class to class, and that huge paper to, ugh, another killer exam, here you really achieve mastery of the subject because you have just one class on your plate — and that's a very cool thing.
Now for the biggest differences: location and lifestyle. I'm happy to learn are off to a visit because this will probably be the deciding factor for you.
Both schools are beautiful, but distinctly different in their locales and feel. Vassar is located in the Hudson Valley in Poughkeepsie, New York. Students feel this location is a bit isolated and there is not much to do in the surrounding area. By comparison, Colorado College is situated in a wide valley with breathtaking views of the Rockies and Pikes Peak. Vassar is every bit what you picture it should be when you think of a traditional, east coast ivy-league campus. Colorado College does not disappoint in conjuring up images of the majestic West, although it sits in Colorado's second largest city.
Along with those views of the majestic mountains as backdrop, comes the expected lifestyle. Students at Colorado College hike, ski, mountain bike and take advantage of natures bounty. It's not uncommon to see students in-line skating to class and around campus. If you see yourself fitting into this kind of outdoorsy environment, then Colorado college may be right for you.
Good luck on your visit, and your final decision. You can't make a bad decision here - each school is wonderful!