Road Trip: Colorado State University

We toured four schools in the Centennial State and found out what it's like to attend them.

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Twelve years ago, flash flooding devastated the Colorado State campus, causing millions in damage and displacing dozens of faculty members. Three of them, an animal genetics researcher, a philosopher, and a professor of finance, were thrown together after the flood. Making the best of a bad situation, they collaborated, and the result was a breakthrough retinal scanning device.

CSU thrives thanks to its scrappy spirit. It may not be a flashy institution, but it's a place where things get done despite setbacks—and sometimes because of them. The school's Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory, in an old Fort Collins power plant, gives undergrads the opportunity to design and build products, work with business consultants (who are often students themselves), and take what they make to market. The lab's projects are 95 percent funded by outside corporations (as opposed to the feds), and the 40 to 60 students who work there, two thirds of them undergraduates, have completed contract work for companies such as John Deere and Caterpillar. Two of the highlights: a clean-burning, two-stroke engine and a cookstove that can be mass-produced for use in developing countries.

The opportunities for undergraduates are just as numerous outside engineering. Students can participate in high-level research in veterinary medicine or infectious diseases.

CSU is a land-grant institution whose roots run deep in Colorado agriculture and forestry. Today, the school is looking to update its image and increase enrollment, and administrators are particularly looking for out-of-state students. CSU has been sharpening its focus on technology and engineering as well as expanding its liberal arts offerings and has been marketing its environmental credentials aggressively for years—although skeptics say reality has only recently caught up with the hype. Even the buildings are getting an upgrade, with state-of-the-art technology in otherwise dingy lecture halls. As junior Tim Hole says, "It's hard to be looked at across the state as being a bunch of farm kids."

But even as CSU pursues a higher profile, it's clear that old habits die hard. The community holds firmly to the school's core appeal: a humble, laid-back attitude and a hands-on, practical approach to learning. "We're here to make the experience a lot less abstract and a lot more useful," says Anthony A. Frank, the school's interim president. A trip to the popular Sundance Steakhouse and Saloon off Route 14 on a Tuesday night betrays a local affinity for cowboy hats and line dancing. It's a throwback to the school's agricultural history and a reminder that hippies, intellectuals, and cowboys can coexist—and maybe aren't even mutually exclusive.

More About Colorado State

Plus factor: Forestry students get to spend a month or more on a campus in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Undergrad enrollment, fall '08: 21,873
Est. annual cost, 2008-09: in state, $14,150; out of state, $29,870

Colorado Road Trip

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