The Saxifrage School: Part III

Four economic principles on behalf of $1,155,399,183,445

Timothy Freeman Cook
The Saxifrage School
12 min readJan 31, 2014


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Now that we’ve gotten the poetry out of the way, we can begin with the problem where I began, the problem at the center of everything: price. As of writing this, the student debt incurred from American colleges is over $1.15 Trillion. It feels like just yesterday we broke $0.75 Trillion and then $1 Trillion. A few graphs will tell the story of its rapid growth and how, scarily, the cost of college has increased more than any of industry, even healthcare. Here is a great compilation by The Atlantic of 17 graphs that tell the “Whole Truth About Student Debt”.

“The price of higher education is the single
largest consumer inflation problem of our era.”

Four—make that six—years of college is becoming the cultural expectation. The vast majority of students (84%) believe that without college they will have “few or no” career prospects, yet we are closing in on 20 Million graduates who are working in jobs they could have gotten without their degrees (waiting tables, answering phones, loading trucks). That is more people than the total number enrolled in any form higher education.

Essentially, the story of debt is this:

As demand increases and more students attend, a small percentage are succeeding. Today’s students are spending three to four times what their parents spent and are getting a lot less for their money. Schools are worse in quality than ever before and degrees are becoming devalued. The problem of cost, however, is not merely an economic one, the cultural ramifications of this debt are equally egregious.

Today’s students are faced, more than ever, with a debilitating choice: do I follow my passion or pursue a professional track to pay off my debts? This, of course, gets back to the question of the purpose of higher education in Part II. These financial burdens are killing creativity and stopping entrepreneurs before they can get started. Even earlier, students’ aspirations are always mired in this reality: if college costs $80,000 or $150,000 or $250,000, how can I warrant studying poetry? The higher the price of college, the less chance the humanities have to maintain their vitality in the University.

As we work on the Saxifrage School, it is difficult to not fall in to the standard rhetoric: schools need to teach real skills so that students can get real jobs. This is an easy sell. And, while it is true that many schools are offering degrees that are all too generic, the issue is a lot bigger than problems of employment. We need real skills not merely to make money, but because these skills (and the work they entail) are an essential compliment—an essential component—of a true liberal arts education.

This discussion on the importance of the liberal arts and the need to reconcile theory and practice is nearly impossible to have under the duress of massive debt. How can we consider why poets should be doctors and why programmers should be dramatists if we cannot pay for any of it?

A lot of people ask us why prices have increased so much. There are a lot of answers out there, but the simplest one is that they had no reason not to increase. The high cost of college is not directly felt by anyone. Students are young and separated from the price by parents, loans, and the lie of “Tuition”. Parents never see the actual instruction, yet feel an obligation to have their child get the “best education money can buy”.

Colleges themselves often have little incentive to lower costs. Raising tuition can both increase revenue and prestige; it also allows them to better compete in the campus-improvement arms race. After all, no one wants to be at the bottom of the list. That’s where the cheap schools are, the ones without a new science and technology center, the ones without a climbing wall, without central air conditioning in the dorms, without a “free” iPad. Interestingly, the one thing a school can do to go beyond the prestige of the ultra-expensive is to be completely free. While cheap schools are looked down upon, the school that offers free tuition is a cut above the rest.

In our work to lower costs, it has become obvious that it is not as simple as “spend less”. There are complicated social and cultural factors at play that need to be addressed if any lasting change is to take place. Here are four economic principles that have guided our work thus far:

  1. Engage students with proactive transparency
  2. Simplify the transaction between teacher and students
  3. Never build something the community can provide
  4. Offer an education, not everything

1. Proactive Transparency

There is a lot to be learned from the recent end of the “Free” at Cooper Union. After 150+ years of no tuition, Cooper Union now costs $20,000. Instead of being free, now it’s just cheap. In it’s recent history, Cooper Union had to wrestle very openly with its expenses, bringing up some serious questions about what made the school. This is how one trustee put it in a recent article

It wasn’t the compensation for the professors, who work for far less than they could make doing most anything else. It wasn’t the studio space for the artists; in 1990, my sculpture studio was half of a 6-foot desk in a hallway. It wasn’t the dorms (we never had them when I was there, and we never wanted Cooper’s money to get spent for them.) It wasn’t state of the art labs for the engineers. It wasn’t the expensive neighborhood, as “vibrant” as it might be. It sure wasn’t a climbing wall or swimming pool. It wasn’t fancy and expensive buildings by starchitects who never graduated Cooper’s world-renowned school of architecture.

The writer, Kevin Slavin, frequently discusses “sacrifice” as the only way to keep the school free and, if it isn’t free, it isn’t Cooper Union anymore. Sacrifice, as an economic virtue, has been wholly lost on schools and their students. For most schools, raising prices from $37,295 to $39,500 seems like a standard price increase. There is no fight be raised. For Cooper Union, their identity—a unique history as a 150 year old free school—was as stake.

The fight for Cooper Union’s free identity and the fight for sacrificial economics is one that must be held at every school. This is not merely an issue of lower prices, it is a deep cultural question: are we willing and able to do more with less? We must find the creativity and energy required to design and choose solutions that keep prices low, but quality high. There is nothing intrinsically good about state-of-the-art facilities, but there is something imperative about students learning to make the world.

For too long our cultural ideal of higher education has been one in which economic scarcity is largely ignored. We have trained students to have unrealistic expectations and have cushioned them from the real and good economy of nature. There was, perhaps, a short period of time when higher education could afford to be both grand and excellent. It was something reserved for the select few intellectuals, but now—if we believe that all people deserve the opportunity—we must reconsider the architecture of our schools. If we look in our history, beyond the halls of Harvard, we see simpler models for education in which students built their own dormitories. Many schools were basic one-room log cabins and their education was one of great spiritual importance, not aimless career motives.

This idea of sacrificial economics is born completely from privilege and is not dissimilar from our first-world problem of obesity. The system of debt and cultural expectation has enabled and obliged students and schools to enter into a contract that is poorly considered by both parties. This privilege, while having its benefits, requires that we do something very difficult: force scarcity upon ourselves. This scarcity, however, must not be built on fear or seen as poverty, but must be embraced with an attitude of stewardship and hope.

No change in the economic culture of our schools can occur unless all parties have an informed interest in the way these schools operate. It should not take a grotesque scandal before Universities begin to operate more openly. Proactive openness is a requirement, not just as checks and balances, but as a way to fully engage their students. If the purpose of college is, indeed, to prepare students to live after they graduate, it ought to require their engagement with the civic and economic life of their current community, the school.

2. Simplify the transaction between teacher and students

In the abstraction of “Tuition” and the growing operations of many colleges, the trade between the teacher and student is anything but direct. It would be an interesting journalistic task to map out the lengthy series of administrative tasks, decisions, meetings, and distributions that take place before a student’s money actually reaches their instructors. While many of these processes are not bad in and of themselves, we must constantly ask the question if they are necessary. If the primary goal of any school is to educate by putting teachers and students in a community with one another, we must do all we can to get out the way. The more complexity we put into the transaction, the less time the teacher and student have to spend with one another. Most educators will agree that, even with bad preparation on a dull subject, a teacher can often be effective if they have a lot of quality time with a small number of students. A simpler transaction means less time is being taken away from the instructor-student community. A simpler transaction means smaller classes and more 1-on-1 time; it means more care.

Simplification, of course, is extremely complex. In the University setting, there are scores of meetings, grading requirements, accreditation issues, reporting demands, and administrative systems that require attention. Even in our very small program, things like liability insurance, the IRS, scheduling demands, and classroom technology logistics can seem to muddy things up pretty quickly. However, we have found that simplification is often hard, not because of our administrative demands, but because of our inability to let go. Simplification means sacrifice, it means not knowing everything, and, we would argue, it means really trusting both parties; perhaps most strangely, it can often mean getting out of the way entirely. This is not easy for an institution who often crave the control offered by complete ownership. This issue is similar to the problem of delegating work. We tell ourselves it’s so much easier to do it ourselves.

An Example of Letting Go
In our upcoming Dev.Year program, we struggled to find a way to bring together and compensate all of the instructors we wanted in our community. Web developers, we found, were more interested in intermittent involvement as mentors, workshop leaders, and one-time lecturers, than they were in being traditional teachers of 12-week lecture-driven courses. In the end, we wound up deciding to hire everyone. Essentially, we wanted to open it up to the entire web development community of Pittsburgh; if they are interested in teaching our students, they can get involved to whatever degree they are available. Considering how to compensate 100 different instructors at different amounts equal to their contribution seemed like an unfortunately complicated administrative task that would really cut in to the amount we could offer teachers and, therefore, the amount of teachers we could offer students.

We have a lead instructor/facilitator who will help coordinate the involvement of the instructor-community. This lead facilitator, we decided, would have to be paid traditionally so we could hire them in advance. For the instructor-team, however, we decided to consider letting go of the transaction entirely. Instead of paying us, what if we just got out of the way and let our students pay the instructor-team themselves? After talking with the founder, we decided to create a team on Gittip that would function as the leanest possible “middle-man” between our students and the instructors.

By using the Gittip team, students commit to contribute $70/week on Gittip to compensate their instructors. The instructors (and students) then democratically decide how much their “take” should be each week from the total income from the Dev.Year team on Gittip. If a developer wants to mentor a student on a volunteer basis for 1 hour/week they can choose to take nothing from the team. If a freelance web designer plans to use their instructor time as part of their income, they can set their take at $300/week for the 10 hours they spend with students. By running the team of instructors through Gittip, the money never comes to the Saxifrage School, students and the instructor community are accountable to one another for the transaction. The administrative load is almost non-existent and students have direct agency in the economics of their education.

3. Never build something the community can provide

At the core of the Saxifrage School model is our concept of the nomadic campus. Rather than owning and operating the traditional, expensive infrastructure, the School’s neighborhood will be the campus. Students will study, eat, sleep and attend classes in pre-existing spaces within a walkable geography in a small City neighborhood; for us that is the Garfield/East Liberty/Larimer area here in Pittsburgh. In cities like ours, as in most places across the country, underused space is both a serious problem and an opportunity.

By relying on community partners to provide campus resources we do three powerful things

  1. Support the Local Economy
    We hold classes in coffee shops, churches, bars, museums, non-profits, cafes, etcetera, by forming mutually beneficial partnerships with the owners of these spaces. In each case, we help them to maintain their structures through rental payment, volunteer support or other benefit. In every neighborhood, there are dozens of high-quality under-used spaces with internet, tables, chairs, and a closet to house our pop-up projection system. Currently, each course that we hold in a partner’s space provides them with about $600 of benefit. If we are able to hold 4 classes in a space each term, we can offer about $7200 in benefit per year to a small business or non-profit. In the future, as we grow to a more sustainable cost structure, this number would increase by as much as 100%. At this rate, we could provide as much as 10% of the yearly gross revenue at a small coffee shop, but with no additional cost to them.
  2. An Authentic Context for Learning
    The neighborhood campus model gives students a context in which to immediately apply their studies. Rather than studying abstract concepts and prototyping designs in the classroom, students will use the neighborhood as their laboratory. This real-world context offers a high degree of accountability and ensures that students attempt work that is both relevant and feasible. We are inspired by the work of the Barefoot College movement, and will be intentional about letting the needs of the community inform our coursework so that students are trained to solve local problems. To add to our favorite quotation from Thoreau: “[the students] should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end [as they work to serve the communities in which they study]”.
  3. It Costs Less
    The amount we pay in partner support is a tremendous cost savings compared to building, operating, and maintaining our own location. It also allows us to scale easily and offers increased agility when we need to shift our programmatic directions.

4. Offer an education, not everything

Maybe there was a time when students could have everything and colleges could easily offer it, but it no longer exists. We have come a long way down since the peak of American higher education in the 1970's. Now, it seems like you can still have everything but the cost of that wealth is obscured by parental involvement, student ignorance, institutional marketing tactics, and deferred payments; it is propped up by debt, government backing, and massive endowments. As higher education comes to terms with the realities of economic scarcity, it must re-focus on its purpose.

This focus, quite simply, is one centered on instruction above all else. While there are a lot of “good” things that colleges provide for their students, so many of them are optional and, because of their added cost, actually end up detracting from the overall investment. These “good” things are made possible, to reiterate, only by the so-called “good” debt that pays for them. Perhaps if we forego all that is unnecessary to the college experience we can hold on to what is. Let the community provide the “student life”, the neighborhood provide their residences, and local eateries provide their food (instead of their infinite cafeteria ice cream). Instead of a “student wellness center” let them join a local gym or YMCA. Let students organize their own intramural sports or, even better, join those that already exist in the city.

Obviously, there is a theme running throughout: if a school relies on the resources of the community, it simultaneously saves money and broadens the student experience. It is a net loss for the student who spends 2 hours a day at basketball practice and every other weekend traveling for games only to realize Junior year that there’s “no future in this” and drop-out to salvage their g.p.a. and re-focus on their learning. What if they had all that time to invest in learning, build their portfolio and, instead, played basketball for fun with a diverse group of adults in the YMCA league every Tuesday and Saturday? Our colleges must remember that they do students a great disservice if they try and offer them everything they need for life. If the goal of college is to prepare students to live better after they graduate, then it must not coddle them, especially if it does so at their significant expense.



Timothy Freeman Cook
The Saxifrage School

Product @launchdarkly; founder of @saxifrageschool ed. laboratory. Part-time farmer. Bikes. Poems.