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Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins came very close to completing his degree at Yale University. But a quirk of redistricting and political serendipity left him with an opportunity that proved irresistible. His beloved hometown of Sitka, Alaska, had no Democratic incumbent for its seat in the state House of Representatives, a Republican running unopposed, and some surprisingly favorable electoral math. Kreiss-Tomkins, who was 23 at the time, left Yale early to run for the seat and won by 32 votes.
In the last three years, serving as the youngest member of Alaska’s state Legislature, Kreiss-Tomkins has started a number programs designed bring people from around the country to Sitka.
And now, Kreiss-Tomkins said, “being of an entrepreneurial frame of mind, and being involved in all these program creation projects, it just sort of occurred to me the next project might be starting a college.”
But not just any old college. Kreiss-Tomkins and a core team of three other friends and colleagues are looking to Deep Springs College, one of the country’s most idiosyncratic higher ed institutions, as their model.
Right now, Outer Coast College exists only on paper, at this website and in the minds of four young but determined individuals. But things are moving fast.
Outer Coast was a vague idea in the summer of 2014, it became real project in summer 2015, and now the team is fielding calls from interested benefactors and prospective faculty, not to mention more than a few high school students inquiring if it will open in time for them to apply. Which, Kreiss-Tomkins said could be as soon as fall 2017, although that will require lots of things to fall in place.
“The certainty to which I would ascribe that this college will in fact exist and have students and be offering an academic experience for people is pretty darn high,” he said. Though the timeline is anything but certain.
Why Deep Springs?
Founded in 1917 by a wealthy electricity and banking magnate, Deep Springs is tiny, just 26 students, and self-governing, so those students are in charge of admissions, employment, facilities -- the whole show, essentially. Plus, the college is a working cattle ranch with a high value placed on manual labor and public service, and it has a reputation for rigorous and outstanding academics (it’s a two-year program, after which graduates tend to end up at prestigious colleges such as Yale, Harvard and the University of Chicago). And Deep Springs is open to men only, at least for now (the college's students and board want to admit women but have been impeded by legal challenges to doing so).
Kreiss-Tomkins discovered Deep Springs thumbing through college catalogs in high school. “It stood out because it was so superlatively anomalous from every other school in those college books,” he said. “But I never really seriously considered applying, and I don’t think I really understood what Deep Springs was about as a high schooler.”
At Yale, he began to meet Deep Spring alumni, whom he found to be thoughtful and intellectually curious, exactly the kind of graduate a good college ought to be producing. “It was a model that quickly captured my attention and interest,” he said, “because it seemed so highly successful. If you’re going to start a college, it makes a lot of sense to replicate a model that works really well, and the Deep Springs model works really well.”
While Kreiss-Tomkins was exploring the feasibility of starting a college in Sitka, he took a tour of Deep Springs, where he met William Hunt, a student who was managing visitor requests at the time. “I ended up becoming his de facto host,” Hunt said. By the end of that first night, the possibility of a full-time fellowship for Hunt (via one of the programs Kreiss-Tomkins had started in Sitka) so he could work on getting Outer Coast up and running was on the table.
“We just sort of dove right in,” Hunt said. “I was thrilled by the idea that we had the chance to generalize this model … I think it’s sort of crazy that the model hasn’t been more widely followed in higher education.”
A couple relatively similar programs have popped up recently. The Arete Project is a summer program modeled after Deep Springs but open exclusively to women, and Thoreau College is another work-in-progress institution that’s aiming for the same size (tiny) and academic rigor but isn’t explicitly Deep Springs-esque. Outer Coast is going further than either by explicitly trying to replicate the Deep Springs model in another college but with women.
What Would Outer Coast College Look Like?
To hear Kreiss-Tomkins describe it, a lot like Deep Springs. Outer Coast will be small -- 40 students, two classes of 20 each. It will have a single two-year program, after which students will transfer to a four-year college to complete their degrees. It will mimic the Deep Springs model of student governance: giving students control over hiring, admissions, discipline, and maintenance via a system of committees and elected positions. And Outer Coast will preserve the focus on manual labor and public service, but that’s where roads begin to diverge.
Deep Springs is located 40 miles from the nearest town in the California desert, but Outer Coast, if all goes as planned, will live not just in a city, but right beside the heart of downtown Sitka, minutes away from grocery stores, banks, restaurants and an active seaport.
“In Deep Springs, that isolation is a lot of what contributes to the intensity of the experience there, and in Sitka, you have one of the most special communities in the world that positively affects so many lives that come to Sitka,” Kreiss-Tomkins said. “This is a huge asset, the community of Sitka.”
And it will contribute to another major deviation. The plan is to integrate a service component directly into the labor requirement of the college. Whereas Deep Springs students must set aside 20 hours each week for jobs that range from cooking to cattle raising to alfalfa growing, Outer Coast will blend the more mundane tasks (like cooking or janitorial work) with historical restoration efforts and service in Sitka.
“At Outer Coast, there will be these highly functional roles that will be filled that help keep the college running and create that sense of … logistical and operational ownership of the college,” Kreiss-Tomkins said. But, “just as the cowboy in Deep Springs is sort of sexy labor, if you will, in Sitka, we have two different ideas for that analogue. One is the service positions with different organizations in the community.” The other would be modeled after an existing program that works to restore historical buildings on the campus where Outer Coast will likely be located. Sort of “Habitat for Humanity meets historic restoration.”
“Obviously we don’t have head of cattle or a herd at Sitka, Alaska, but this is sort of a conspicuous and context-sensitive equivalent,” he said. There is also talk of incorporating a fishing component, which the college would be well situated to take advantage of. It’s not definitive, but “I would say it’s more likely than not that that will be an aspect of the school and also a major component of the menu,” Kreiss-Tomkins said.
Lastly, and significantly, Outer Coast will be coeducational.
“We want to provide the opportunity for an Outer Coast education for everyone, regardless of gender,” said Stephanie Gilardi, another member of the core team heading up a working group focused on admissions and recruitment strategy. “In fact, much of our support has come from the Deep Springs community, because they see Outer Coast College as the first [Deep Springs-esque] college open to women …. We foresee that diversity will be especially important in such a small community of students, and gender identity is one important axis of diversity.”
What's Left to Do (Lots)
There’s a lot left to do before Outer Coast officially starts accepting applications. It still isn’t legally incorporated, for example. Nor does it have a concrete and comprehensive plan for development, though the team has begun discussions on that front.
“We’re very much at the ground level,” Kreiss-Tomkins said. “It’s still very dynamic. It’s protean.”
Without money, the question of tuition is still up in the air as well. Kreiss-Tomkins said the organizers would love to charge nothing, just like Deep Springs, but they don’t have a millionaire electricity tycoon founder at their backs. What they do have going for them, he said, is a financially efficient structure. No athletics department, no police force, no college clinic. “It’s an administratively simple -- in the positive sense of that word -- model of education, and therefore we hope [a] more affordable model of education,” he said. “That’s absolutely something that’s a priority for us, though how exactly it will manifest remains to be seen. But I’m pretty confident we’ll get there in a positive way.”
And then, of course, there’s accreditation. All the core team members have had their hands in everything, dividing tasks between them as appropriate, but Hunt has recently put a lot of energy into the accreditation front. While nothing is definite yet, he said, they will certainly be pursuing regional accreditation rather than national and will likely partner with a local college or university, at least at first, to ensure credits will be transferable from the get-go. “We are scoping out different possibilities,” he said. So far, the team has approached and is “in discussions with” a number of regional accreditors.
Recruitment, for both faculty and students, is another major task ahead, but nobody thinks it will pose a great challenge. Interested professors have already begun reaching out, and with their 2 percent acceptance rate and hundreds of applicants, there appears to be plenty of demand for a Deep Springs-esque education.
Finally, and critically, the college needs a campus. More than likely, it will reoccupy the 133-year-old Sheldon Jackson campus, which has been absent a full university since Sheldon Jackson College closed in 2007. However, the campus is currently home to -- and owned by -- the Sitka Fine Arts Camp (or its legal moniker, Alaska Arts Southeast).
The camp’s director, Roger Schmidt, said he and the camp’s board are excited about the idea of hosting Outer Coast College, though nothing yet has been decided. Dozens of different programs operate on the campus throughout the year, and during the summer months, the campus is full to capacity. There is, however, space during the nine-month school year.
“We’re receptive to the idea,” he said. “Sitka has always had a school here, and if it can be made to work, it would be a great thing for the community and a great thing for the campus.”
Whether it will be possible to replicate the unique, weird and, by many metrics, highly successful Deep Springs College model remains to be seen. But, at the very least, it seems as though Outer Coast could fill a gap even Deep Springs hasn't yet managed to fill.
“The prospect of a college here modeled on Deep Springs rings some very nice notes for me,” Gilardi said. “I had read about the college when I was in high school and wanted to apply. I was very disappointed that it was only for men. In the last months, as people have started finding out about our project, I've learned that I’m far from the only woman who’s felt that way over the years.”