Saxifrage – A Provocative Model

Will innovation in higher education come from technologically sophisticated low-cost disruptors? Can costs be contained without reliance on MOOCs? A different model is the Saxifrage School. Founded by a young visionary, Tim Cook, the school will offer students a career focus and liberal arts education at a low cost. Dependent upon charity and a catch-as-catch-can campus in Pittsburgh, PA,  Saxifrage’s model rests on three basic ideas: different relationships between teacher and student, no traditional brick and mortar expenses, and close linkages between theory and practice. In start-up mode for the past year, Saxifrage is idealistic and optimistic. Spring 2013 courses include carpentry, graphic design and organic agriculture. Accreditation will be the key hurdle, but before that is possible, sustainability will is challenge. Initial press is positive, but there has not been a clear critical voice affirming the school’s long-term success.

I admire the founders courage and their effort. I do question the model’s assumption that a traditional campus is a key financial burden leading to ever-rising tuition costs. Facilities matter, but people are the real factor in the quality and effectiveness of any institution of higher education. Quality educators need salaries and benefits, and in a competitive environment, that means significant resources and rising costs (see Baumol’s disease). If the faculty are strong, it is possible to skimp in other areas and to retain students.

A related concern is that dedicated spaces for student learning make a difference. While there is much that can be done in rough-and-ready spaces, academic focus often demands equipment and a supportive environment.

All that said, I very much hope that Mr. Cook and the Saxifrage School continues to grow. It is a worthwhile experiment and higher education today needs more models, more pilots, and more institutions and people willing to try alternative paths.

David Potash

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