How To Start a College on Your Own Time

Editor’s note: Tim Mosteller, who received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Miami, currently teaches philosophy full-time in southern California and is the president of San Elijo College.

I am one of a group of people who have recently formed a small classical “great books” college in north San Diego County, California. We are recruiting students for our first class in the fall of 2010.

These are the steps that brought us to this point.

Step 1: Reflect on What Is Missing

In the fall of 1989 in a freshman honors course on the western literary canon from Homer to Milton, my professor railed against Allan Bloom’s book Closing of the American Mind. At 18, I did not yet understand the significance of the ideas in that book, which stressed the importance of knowledge of the great minds from the past. They eventually became a central part of my motivation to start a college.

The majority of my undergraduate courses consisted of the typical jumble of general education and elective courses, coupled with my majors. Most of those courses were well taught, but I was unable to see a connection between my course in classical music and my course in astronomy. And no one even tried to get me to think that biology and philosophy had any relation to one another. It was not until years after graduation that I realized what I had missed.

My graduate education consisted of specialized coursework in philosophy. Not much room for making broad connections there. However, during graduate school, I began to hear rumors of a different type of education than the one I had experienced, and I was subsequently introduced to the great books colleges of St. Thomas Aquinas College and St. John’s. I began to imagine a form of higher education that would ameliorate two deficiencies I had experienced as a student and was beginning to experience as a professor: 1) the fragmentation of the disciplines and 2) my students’ and my own general unfamiliarity with the classics of Western thought.

Step 2: Reflect on What Should Be

After I earned my Ph.D., I began to read about education based on the great books. I read C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Cardinal Newman, John Hutchins, Mortimer Adler, Stringfellow Barr, and others. I found in these works a general agreement that the current model of higher education—focused on vocational training, fragmented in its view of general education, and incoherent in the manner of connecting courses—is in need of repair.

As I read, an ideal of education formed in my mind: a unified curriculum incorporating the great books, coupled with courses in the classical liberal arts (the quadrivium and trivium). Given my personal commitments, I settled on the ideal of a “merely” (in C.S. Lewis’s use of the term) Christian classical liberal arts colleges in the great books tradition, open to all. I envisioned a small learning community of master scholars and student apprentices focused on the great works of Western civilization. I also envisioned a truly free college, government-free like Hillsdale College and Grove City College, and tuition-free like Berea College and College of the Ozarks. A tuition-free college de-commodifies education and frees students from the burden of extensive debt. This is a long-term goal, with the hope of an endowment for each faculty position; until then we intend to keep tuition under $10,000 a year.

Step 3: Get Advice

After thinking about these ideals, I began to seek advice on starting a college. First, I sought philosophical advice from Dr. Dallas Willard, my undergraduate mentor in philosophy who agreed that a college of the type I envisioned was both needed and feasible.

The second area of advice I sought was on the business/organizational side of things. This came through a connection with a semi-retired local real estate developer who has an interest in philosophy and ideas. His advice on goal setting and vision casting has been invaluable to me.

Third, I sought advice from people who have successfully started colleges. I met with the founders of Thomas Aquinas College (founded 1971), Gutenberg College (f. 1994), New St. Andrews College (f. 1994), Community Christian College (f. 1995), John Paul the Great Catholic University (f. 2003 –an amazing recent success story), and Oak Valley College (opening 2010).

Fourth, I sought “negative” advice from news articles on schools which had opened and failed. Rose Hill College and Founders College provided me with some good examples of what not to do.

Step 4: Take Action

After completing my advice tour, I slowly began to take action.

  • I wrote a manifesto.
  • I wrote a business plan.
  • I formed an informal advisory committee.
  • I recruited a formal board of trustees.
  • I began networking with potential faculty.
  • We incorporated as a nonprofit corporation with the state of California.
  • We applied for and received 501(c)(3) status with the IRS.
  • We began fundraising.
  • We began working on the college’s infrastructure (e.g., website, 800 number, catalogs, policies, applications, etc.).
  • We held a few events including a high profile symposium dinner/fundraiser.
  • Now, we are recruiting students.

Step 5: Work to Overcome Challenges

We have three big—but surmountable—challenges.

  • Money. Money isn’t everything, but starting a college with very little isn’t easy. As we met with prospective donors, we discovered that they want to see a measure of success before making a significant investment. We are shooting for small successes to demonstrate viability toward further donor involvement.
  • State bureaucracy. The regulation of colleges has been in bureaucratic limbo for the last few years in California. This fall, the legislature reestablished a state bureau to oversee the formation of new colleges and grant approval to operate. We’ve been moving forward designing our policies and procedures around the older state requirements. A new bureaucracy may bring new requirements…we will find out in a few months.
  • Accreditation. Accreditation is a major barrier to market entry for new colleges. It’s hard to get students to an unaccredited school, and you can’t get accreditation until you have students at your school! So, we are focusing on the near-term challenge, getting students to our school in order to meet the later challenge of getting accreditation for our students at our school.

We are still at the very beginning of the history of San Elijo College, and starting an ideal college from scratch is certainly challenging. When I envision the success of the endeavor, I try to remember G.K. Chesterton’s words:

“A man who thinks much about success must be the drowsiest sentimentalist; for he must be always looking back. If he only likes victory he must always come late for the battle. For the man of action there is nothing but idealism … There is only one really startling thing to be done with the ideal, and that is to do it” (What’s Wrong with the World).