Starting a College or University
December 2, 2007 12:50 PM   Subscribe

Does anyone here have experience starting a small college or university? (more inside)

I live in Roanoke, Virginia and have been thinking lately about how it could use a left-leaning college or university downtown. There's lots of empty space downtown and a fair amount of cheap housing.

There's a Roanoke College in Salem, the town next door. And Hollins College down the road, but nothing downtown Roanoke.

Do I look for grants? Write rich people who may be interested?
Are you maybe familiar with a book written by someone who has done this?
posted by PHINC to Education (19 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I would suspect that it takes a whole lot of money. Tom Monaghan (former owner of Dominoes Pizza and the Detroit Tigers) started a University...he had a LOT of money to throw at it, plus the support of a sub-branch of the Catholic Church... and he still struggled to make this work..

Look for rich people, and make sure you're offering something unique that they are willing to pour money into...
posted by HuronBob at 1:09 PM on December 2, 2007

Um. Is there demand for a college? What's going to be special about this college that people will go to it? Do you have a background in education? Do you have a background in business, at least? Administration experience? Do you have legal knowledge?
posted by Autarky at 1:11 PM on December 2, 2007

At this stage in your life, this is a fool's errand. Go into the business world and make contacts for decades, and then you can start hitting them up for money and expertise.
posted by grouse at 1:20 PM on December 2, 2007

I was part of the very first class of Olin College, which was officially founded in 1997 and opened its doors to its first freshman class in 2002. It took a board of trustees (who had previously been the board of directors for the Franklin W. Olin Foundation) to donate all the money ($400M) to start the school. It was an intense experience, and that was after I came in in 2002; before that, there had been a ton of planning with the city of Needham, land agreements with neighboring Babson College, agreements with other colleges in the area for cross-registration, the finding of professors, work with accreditation boards, etc, etc... not to mention trying to bribe students in to coming to a campus with only one year's worth of curriculum planned, no buildings, no accreditation, and no reputation. Once I was there, the remaining three years of curriculum had to be established, everyone served on committees for diversity, campus food, student life, club organization, curriculum review, strategic planning, IT services, facilities, campus safety, etc, just to get the college up and running after the infrastructure had been completed. So besides being a college student (which Olin estimate should take me 52 hours of week of work, including classes, for a four-year engineering degree, and it did), there was probably at least another 20-25 hours each week everyone spent on making the college go. That included faculty members with very, very patient families.

It was one of the best experiences of my life, but it took more work from me, the other students, the faculty, staff, administration, and trustees than I ever could have imagined.

That said, if you are going to look into this, find a foundation with lots of money (like the Olin foundation) with a board full of very smart businesspeople, and pitch the idea. If it holds with their mission, if there is obvious demand, and if there is support from academia and industry, they might be willing and able to get this going. Olin was started by a foundation with lots of money, with a 50-year history of supporting science and engineering programs throughout the rest of the country, in response to calls from the NSF, ASEE, and other organizations for engineering education reform. Why should your college exist?
posted by olinerd at 1:27 PM on December 2, 2007 [6 favorites]

You may want to read up on Black Mountain College. A different (and more stable) model would be my alma mater, Hampshire College. Hampshire thrived not only because of timing (education reform of the late 60s) but because of its collaboration with four other major colleges in the area.

Both the books I linked to describe the struggle with a college credo, funding, and general start-up obstacles.
posted by Riverine at 1:32 PM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

I live in Roanoke as well, and I personally think there isn't that much demand for another college in the area. With Hollins, Roanoke, and Virginia Western CC right nearby and Tech only 45 minutes away, I don't see much of a gap to be filled, honestly. Of course, I'm not extremely active in education nor an expert in it, so take this as my humble 2 cents.
posted by Hargrimm at 1:48 PM on December 2, 2007

Is there demand for a college? / Why should your college exist?
I think there has always been interest in there being a college or university downtown Roanoke. It's one of those ideas that's often bandied about here. But I think my motivation and interest in this comes from my own ideas about how the city, downtown especially, could be improved upon by having an active college or university downtown.

What's going to be special about this college that people will go to it?
To be determined. But I do like the model of the Savanna College or Art and Design and how that school seems to have a creative and positive influence on the downtown there.

Do you have a background in education?
Yes, I'm working on a PhD in education at the moment and have worked in higher ed for six years.

Do you have a background in business, at least?
Not much.

Administration experience?
Well, I've worked numerous projects in higher education but I really have no direct admin experience.

Do you have legal knowledge?
posted by PHINC at 1:50 PM on December 2, 2007

Why an independent institution? Why not a new campus or Faculty of an existing University? An easier nut to crack - but still tough if you ask me.
posted by A189Nut at 1:57 PM on December 2, 2007

Your issue is really on the "left-leaning" part. While there are the rare progressive rich people (emphasis on rare), most rich people have terrible politics and will fund projects the push their terrible politics: conservative think tanks, schools, and the like.
While people above are right that his may be a fool's errand, probably the best thing you want to look into is the free school movement. You still need a little bit of money as well as a good number of people who are willing to contribute on a number of different levels. If this is a vanity project, you should just call it a day.
posted by history is a weapon at 2:11 PM on December 2, 2007

This would be a huge, insane amount of work and require a huge, insane amount of money.

I have an in-law who is a retired professor, who's now working to start up a small college-lite program in the town he retired to. He's starting by making it a place where established colleges can send students on a junior year program, and they can do activities that the area has (eg wetland ecology in his case). It's a ton of work, even though he has arranged with a bunch of retired faculty who live in the area to supervise the courses. If you were determined to do something like this, maybe you could start by making it a study-away destination, or a post-college or post-high-school one-year course in one or two fields.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:16 PM on December 2, 2007

I agree with Hargrimm, it might be a tough shell to crack with all the local schools in the area. You mentioned an idea on art and design, perhaps this could somehow be connected with the new art gallery going in downtown?

One of the things about Virginia, is that it seems there's a college or university always with spitting distance. You definitely need to find something that really isn't offered anywhere else in the region of the state, if not the state itself.

In terms of funding and assistance, you might check out the state legislator and also, the Congressional representatives for the area, if you can create something that will have a positive and beneficial pull for the region and state economically and culturally. Course, it'd probably best to not state a desired ideological slant to the place.

Incidentally, my cousin just began work on an area newspaper because he thought, at least the media, was already slanting too much to the left. ;)
posted by Atreides at 2:21 PM on December 2, 2007

I have to say that "because of the effect it would have on the community" seems like a pretty bad reason to start a college. The primary reasons for a college or university to exist is to educate people and/or to conduct original research; considerations involving the community at large are only secondary, and should only come into play once it's become clear that these main goals can be satisfied.
posted by Johnny Assay at 2:50 PM on December 2, 2007

The Savannah College of Art and Design started by having just a historical preservation degree. The main reason they survived was by buying extremely cheap, crappy buildings downtown and having their students renovate them as part of their studies. They really brought downtown Savannah back, and that's why it worked so well. The other programs they offer came later.
posted by thebrokenmuse at 3:02 PM on December 2, 2007

Very insightful information as usual.
Obviously if this is something I'm going to get serious about I've got a lot of work cut out for me but this has been very helpful. Thanks a bunch to everyone.
posted by PHINC at 4:01 PM on December 2, 2007

Have you thought of creating a "community education center," offering fee-generating continuing education courses using local teachers, and then letting the center grow and evolve gradually?

You would surely require no accreditation to start a local continuing education school; you could pay your teachers out of the tuition monies paid by students; and this baby-step might lead to bigger things.
posted by jayder at 4:34 PM on December 2, 2007

I would imagine that starting a "college" is a lot like starting a town, in that one person just doesn't go out and do it. Of course new, particularly for profit and religious, institutions are popping up all the time, for example Delphi University. Of course, accreditation and legitimacy are an altogether different matter. Not only do you have to think about "what is the gap," but you have to think about who best fills it. If you have a certain degree of notoriety and expertise on a given subject, you can probably convince people to pay to learn something from you. You can build that following into something more institutional with enough money and expertise to support it. Or you can just throw a whole heaping load of money at it and buy a university from scratch.

So, I guess the basic question(s) are:

1) What are you expert enough at (cooking, martial arts, writing, math, etc.) that lots of people will pay a lot of money to learn from you?

2) How do you structure an extended curriculum for these people?

3) How will you prove legitimacy of this project to accreditation and regulatory bodies?


b) How do you convince other experts that you are the one they should be working for in a university-like situation?


c) how do you convince someone that you are the one they should give a few million dollars to to fund a new educational endeavor?

Whichever route you take, it's probably going to take you a few years to get it off the ground.
posted by mrmojoflying at 5:55 PM on December 2, 2007

Something that sprung to mind is that you could easily start a college in conjuction with a program that offers distance enrollment accreditation. My friend in Washington graduated from a Christian college in Michigan that had lifted all of its classes from Thomas Edison State College in New Jersey. Another example, Presidio School of Management in San Francisco is affiliated with Alliant International University. You could try to contract out the degree granting ability to a school and then teach classes in a capacity as a teacher and administrator.
posted by parmanparman at 7:33 PM on December 2, 2007

I recalled something I meant to throw in yesterday. You might try contacting the folks in Grundy at the Appalachia School of Law and the University of Appalachia College of Pharmacy.

These are two, relatively recently founded colleges, in Southwest Virginia. They may have some good insight on founding schools in the commonwealth, as per problems of money, accreditation, and the role local or state government might have played.
posted by Atreides at 9:04 AM on December 3, 2007

While it's not quite what you're looking for, might it be worth having a look at something similar to this?
posted by Chuckles McLaughy du Haha, the depressed clown at 9:34 AM on December 3, 2007

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