At the heart of the Saxifrage School model is an innovative, yet simple concept for re-thinking the college campus. Rather than owning and operating the traditional, expensive infrastructure, the School's neighborhood will be the campus. We call it a "nomad campus": students will study, eat, sleep and attend classes in pre-existing spaces within a walkable geography in a small City neighborhood. While it is nothing fancy, this radical campus structure elegantly addresses a number of issues:
1. Excess Infrastructure and Struggling Owners
By holding classes in underutilized spaces in a specific City neighborhood (churches, bars, museums, non-profits, cafes, etc.) the Saxifrage School will revitalize spaces otherwise unoccupied for long periods of time. We will form mutually beneficial partnerships with the owners of these spaces, helping them to maintain their structures through rental payment, volunteer support or other arrangement. In one researched neighborhood, there are 62 churches in a walkable 1-mile campus area most of which are fully empty during the week; in this same neighborhood, almost every non-profit organization has a large meeting or conference space they rarely use and most of the 20+ bars are closed and empty until 5 pm.
2. Underdeveloped Commercial Districts
Each of the neighborhoods we are considering as possible campuses have main-street business districts which are struggling due to little investment and competition from suburban commercial areas. Our campus will add 550+ consumers to the neighborhood who, for reasons of convenience and transportation limitations, will be more likely to shop at small neighborhood stores. Most importantly, in our model, the college itself will not operate any student services that should otherwise be provided by local businesses. Instead of a cafeteria and college coffee shop, we will direct students to local eateries and groceries; instead of a gymnasium, we will connect them with the community center, park and trail system, or YMCA. If a bookstore, or other necessary business, does not yet exist in the neighborhood we will foster its creation by offering development grants or loans to entrepreneurs.
3. Isolated Student Experience
If the college experience is, ostensibly, supposed to prepare students to live better after they graduate, then they must live in a real place. While many colleges are geographically isolated, even those students at campuses that are in cities often graduate having never spent any substantial time in their own neighborhoods. While we will do everything possible to enable a smooth transition into life on our campus, we want to challenge our students to become authentic residents in their neighborhood. Our goal is for students to learn how to take care of their own place, negotiate with landlords, and build relationships with their non-student neighbors.
4. Artificial Context
Additionally, 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 improve the communities in which they study]".
5. Retaining Graduates
For some time now, Pittsburgh, like most cities with declining populations, has been trying to find ways to retain its college graduates. Our city's student population makes up a large percentage of the total residency, but, unfortunately, many of them choose to move away after college. It is easy for graduates to move away because, even though they were technically residents, they never fully experienced the best parts of the city; they never became a part of a community they could imagine calling home after graduation. By living in a real neighborhood and relying on community resources, students can experience the city as authentic residents. Most importantly, they will build invaluable local networks with people outside of the college that will help them find appropriate employment and link them to the city.
6. Taxation Conflict
Cities and their non-profit university institutions often have a tenuous relationship due to the amount of land owned by universities and the city services they occupy while paying no city taxes. Recently, there was a drawn out conflict between the City of Pittsburgh and its largest higher education institutions over this very issue. While it seems wrong to "tax students", the tax-free operations of large universities are extremely difficult for poor cities, like Pittsburgh, to support. Since the Saxifrage School will own and operate only two buildings (a headquarters and large warehouse), we will not noticeably contribute to the number of tax-free properties. More substantially, instead of operating our own non-profit student services, we will contribute to the income of small businesses (which do pay taxes to the city) and will provide rental income to a number of tax-paying property owners.
7. The Cost of College
As tuition costs have risen to staggering heights, statistics show that most of this increase is not due to increased costs of instruction. Rather, things like operating costs and building expenses are causing costs to increase, as students graduate with more and more debt. By operating the "nomad campus" model, the Saxifrage School will be able to eliminate the majority of building costs and offer a yearly tuition price of $5000.