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College in a Basement: The New Higher Ed?

In just a few years, a neighbor’s basement may serve as a college classroom, the local YMCA as the dormitory, and a degree might come at the cost of one year’s tuition at a private college. That’s the idea behind Tim Cook’s Saxifrage school, an alternative (as yet unaccredited) to college profiled in the WSJ:

Saxifrage is woven into the bustle of three East Pittsburgh neighborhoods. A graphic-design course is taught in a coffee shop. A course on organic agriculture uses the boiler room in an abandoned city pool house for its seed-starting workshop. Other offerings are Computer Programming and Carpentry & Design. The courses are taught by working professionals and craftsmen, and the plan is to hire adjuncts and Ph.D students from traditional colleges to teach humanities classes as they are added.

This doesn’t sound like “college” as most people define it, but the program has much to recommend it. Most importantly, the school’s simple structure and organization allows Cook to keep costs down. Courses are $395 each, and he estimates that in a few years, one year’s tuition will cost $6,500. Not a bad deal compared to the cost of a traditional college: Tuition alone for the 2012-2013 school year averaged $29,056 at private colleges. Add in fees and other expenses, and the cost shoots up to $43,289.

Obviously, this is only one small experiment, but this is the kind of innovation we like to see in higher ed. Cook, for example, offers classes that teach practical skills, having been frustrated that his own college didn’t. Sure, his model may be too radical for most conventional students, but we need more alternatives to the brick-and-ivy behemoths. Let’s hope this kind of creativity is contagious.

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  • At the very least, this does sort of resemble the informal bodies of students & teachers that evolved into the colleges of the medieval universities in Paris, Bologna, and elsewhere. Nothing fancy or grandiose – just a few benches, some writing tools and knowledge to be transmitted.

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