Pittsburghers seek to create an innovative, low-cost college: The Saxifrage School
June 5, 2011 4:00 AM
Tim Cook, founder of The Saxifrage School, stands by a quote by Henry David Thoreau on a window at the organization's office on the North Side.
The Saxifrage School crew with Tim Cook, who launched the project, standing at center.
By Bill Schackner Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Imagine a freshman English class set in the back room of your neighborhood bar, or a philosophy lecture reverberating inside a church footsteps from home.
Picture dual majors that require proficiency not only in literature but also in renovating a house.
If this sounds like an unusual notion of a four-year college, that's only the start.
North Side resident Timothy Cook and a group of his peers say the traditional college experience doesn't guarantee that students will acquire the balance of physical and intellectual skills they need to lead self-sufficient lives.
And besides, the whole thing costs too darn much.
So they have set out on a quest that, depending on your level of optimism, is either a model for the future or nothing short of a pipe dream.
This group that has almost no capital -- let alone experience in such an endeavor -- wants to create its own stripped-down version of college.
The Saxifrage School, as it is called, would have no sports teams, no dorms, and no classroom buildings or traditional campus. Instead, classes would be clustered in a yet-to-be determined neighborhood where faculty would hold court in cafes, libraries and other available spaces. Students would have to learn Spanish, in addition to pursuing two starkly different programs of study: one academic, the other technical.
The annual price would be $5,000 in tuition plus a $1,500 administrative fee, a rate intended to help students avoid crushing debt.
Mr. Cook, who conceived the idea three years ago, and other organizers acknowledge that raising $2 million in startup money (mostly to hire faculty and staff) will be no small feat but insist the attempt to enroll the first of 500 students as soon as 2014 is worth it.
The organizers, who quote Henry David Thoreau, tout the value of individuals pursuing their life's work while enjoying the freedom of being able to maintain their own car, renovate their house and even grow their own food.
The school's name comes from a reference to the plant Saxifrage in the poem "A Sort of a Song" by William Carlos Williams: Compose. (No ideas / but in things) Invent! / Saxifrage is my flower that splits / the rocks.
"Everybody's a bit surprised by the enormity of the project, but once they get past that they see the relevance and the need for this," said Mr. Cook, 26, who graduated in 2007 with an English degree from Washington & Jefferson College and works at the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh, building and repairing exhibits.
Organizers include Mr. Cook and 18 other members of a project team whose careers range from auditor to a programmer for Google. According to the group's website, www.saxifrageschool.org, a board of directors is being formed.
Experts say that even if accreditation can be achieved, and state approval to award degrees is granted, making a financial go of a college startup is always daunting.
Yet that hasn't stopped some from trying, either to capture a niche market or because they are troubled by what they perceive as a void in existing college options.
Even the state Board of Education's Higher Education Council floated one such idea back in 2009: No-frills colleges intended as a less expensive alternative that would ease mounting student debt.
Sometimes a mega gift can be the spark, like the $250 million initial donation from Domino's Pizza founder Thomas S. Monaghan that led to Ave Maria University, an accredited Catholic institution in Florida with 700 students that opened in 2003.
Other times it's someone like Richard Liston, a former assistant professor of computer science, who has spent $50,000 of his money and borrowed $50,000 more from his father to sustain his Sphere College, a school for students who do not do well in traditional academic settings. The as-yet-unaccredited school has seven students and operates just outside Philadelphia.
"I've been challenged to the very core of my being almost on a daily basis," said Mr. Liston. Nevertheless, he has faith his effort will succeed. "If I wasn't convinced of that, I probably would have left some time ago," he said.
Affordability is a recurring theme in startups because people increasingly view the financial model of private higher education as unsustainable, said Jon Fuller, senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
"We have been raising tuition about 2 percent above the rate of inflation. That's been going on for 20 years now," he said. "And then we give back about half of that new income in discounts for needy students."
He said the remaining revenue often doesn't cover campus facility costs, so schools bolster their coffers by enrolling more students, which in turn raises overhead costs again. The public, meanwhile, is showing a level of resistance to rising prices not previously seen.
"Every admissions officer you talk to says they are getting more and more push back from essentially the same kind of families who previously didn't raise questions about the cost," Mr. Fuller said.
He described Saxifrage as an interesting idea, but questioned its viability without a true physical campus.
"How do people find you? How do people connect with you?" he asked. "Without a physical presence, I don't know how you make it work."
But Mr. Cook and other organizers believe there is a market. They intend to begin soliciting funds as early as this summer once they apply for tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service. Organizers have been using space inside a former bar across from PNC Park as a temporary headquarters.
The group last August incorporated as a nonprofit for educational research, according to Nicholas Winkler, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of State.
Mr. Cook says no matter how the project evolves, it already has furthered discussion about what's really important in a college degree. "Part of what we're trying to do here," said Kimberly Bracken, another project team member, "is take this mecca of college, try to slim it down and say 'What's the point here?' "