Colorado Woman's College (CWC) was founded by the Rev. Robert Cameron, the pastor of Denver's First Baptist Church, who wished to open a women's college in the Western United States that would be equivalent to Vassar College in terms of prestige and academic offerings. In April 1888, 20 acres of Montrose [now Denver's Park Hill neighborhood] was designated for a ''female college of high order.'' A constitution was adopted October 22, 1888, which provided that the name would be ''The Colorado Woman's College Society.'' The first Board of Trustees was elected in November 1888, comprised of 22 men and five women, and a Certificate of Incorporation for Colorado Woman's College was presented to Arapahoe County, Colorado on November 14, 1888.
As in many such enterprises, the college was impeded by lack of financial support, and it was March 25, 1890 before the cornerstone for the Administration Building, later named Treat Hall, was laid. Money problems continued to plague the founders of the college, and it was not until 1908 that a President, Jay Porter Treat, was elected. The first 59 students arrived in September 1909, and the first commencement was June 6, 1911.
Although the school experienced periods of growth as well as financial setbacks in the early years, the 1920s and 1930s were a period of expansion. In 1926 Samuel Jesse Vaughan was elected the fourth president of Colorado Woman's College and the college began an aggressive fund-raising campaign to expand the college and add dormitory space. The College library boasted 3,000 volumes in 1928 and 6,000 by 1933. Foote Hall, named after Ira A. Foote who until his death had been an ardent supporter of the college, was authorized in 1930. The school received its accreditation from the Higher Learning Commission as Colorado Woman's College in 1932.
A residential college, CWC had an active social life for students. The campus newspaper was titled The Western Graphic; other publications included yearbooks and scrapbooks. The college also had athletic offerings, including field hockey and basketball. During Dr. Vaughan's tenure enrollment increased from 93 to 236. The tradition of 'The Hanging of the Christmas Greens' began in 1930. The strict social code of the college was relaxed to allow a gala carnival, but not enough to allow smoking or dancing.
The depression years were survived by creative measures such as exchanging tuition, housing and meals for farm produce or labor. Although the depression affected the college's fundraising adversely, the student body was steadily increasing until it reached 360 in the 1939-1940 academic year. The completion of Porter Hall, an additional dormitory, was accomplished in 1939. The post-World War II boom also hit the college. Enrollment, which had been 397 in 1943 increased to 507 for the 1949-1950 year. The building required to support the increased student body was also undertaken, with a dormitory, Pulliam Hall, and Dora Porter Mason Hall, which housed the dining hall, gymnasium and swimming pool, were completed in 1947. By fall 1956, when Curtis Hall opened as a dormitory, enrollment was 531. At the same time a new science building, Hutchingson Hall, was started. Expansion continued with the addition of Whatley Chapel in 1962, and the Permelia Curtis Porter Library in 1963.
The expansion also extended to academics. In 1963 a program was established in Vienna, Austria to allow students to study abroad for a year. A year later a program was established in Madrid, Spain and in 1966 one was started in Geneva, Switzerland. The early 1960s also saw the construction of two additional dormitories, Dutton Hall and Dunklee Hall. In 1965, Mrs. W. Ida Houston donated assets to help construct a fine arts center on the campus, which was named the W. Dale and W. Ida Houston Fine Arts Center. Another addition to the college was the gift of Mr. and Mrs. Edward O. Stoddard for a medical building. With additional financial support from John Nelson Meade, the center broke ground in 1970 as the Loa M. Stoddard Student Health Center and John N. Meade Hospital and Medical Services.
The tide of history was turning against women's colleges, however, and enrollment began a steady decline after 1967, when it peaked at 1,117. The name change to Temple Buell College had caused many of the former donors to the college to assume that their contributions were no longer needed. Also, the name change had not helped with recruitment; Colorado Woman's College was well known throughout the country, but Temple Buell College was not. Finally financial reality forced the trustees to resolve to change the name of the college back to a form of its previous name, even if it meant giving up the Buell trust. It was formally resolved March 29, 1973 that the college would be known as Colorado Women's College (woman became plural and changed to women to emphasize the purpose of CWC – to educate many women). Along with the name change, a re-engagement program was established in 1973, targeting working women over the age of 25.
In 1976 a proposal was made to make the college a component of the University of Denver, but was rejected by the trustees. In an attempt to revitalize the college, a $7 million fundraising campaign was initiated and Marjorie Bell Chambers was elected president on May 19, 1976. Dropping enrollment, coupled with questions as to the financial viability of the college, caused major donors to discontinue support. The decision was made not to reopen in January 1977. That caused a flurry of action as alumnae and friends scrambled to raise funds. By January 3, 1997, the day the school was to close, $500,000 in cash and pledges had been raised and the trustees were persuaded to keep the school open. New programs were implemented, such as a re-engagement program intended to attract women who had interrupted their academic careers and were ready to resume their education in order to prosper in the corporate world. There was also discord, as President Chambers left the college after only a year, and was replaced by Sherry Manning. Manning began a program of weekend college that allowed women to obtain a bachelor's degree by going to school on weekends. The first registration, in March 1980, enrolled 127 students.
It was not enough. By the end of 1980 the college could not afford to continue operating. The situation was exacerbated by a dispute with the faculty over raises and tenure. Added to that was the threat that the North Central Association would withhold accreditation due to the financial situation. So, on April 30, 1981, it was resolved that Colorado Women's College and the University of Denver, a private university, would explore affiliation of the two institutions. After careful consideration and study, on November 22, 1981 the Board of Trustees accepted an offer from the University of Denver to acquire the assets of Colorado Women's College, and Colorado Women's College and the University of Denver merged in 1982.