In a city full of colleges and in an economy increasingly perilous for small schools, one wealthy businessman is making an unlikely investment. Next fall he will open a college in Boston geared toward conservative Christian students, using an innovative model that incorporates online learning.
Sattler College, named after a 16th century martyr, will be entirely funded by Finny Kuruvilla, an investment fund manager with a medical degree and a PhD from Harvard. He has guaranteed $30 million of his money to fund the school.
In his view, the traditional college model is broken. The new four-year school is his attempt to start from a blank slate. He said his goals are threefold: to teach a strong core of liberal arts courses, provide students with a Christian community, and keep the cost extremely low. Tuition will be $9,000 per year, about a fifth of the cost of a typical private college.
Kuruvilla, who attends and preaches at a small church in Medford called Followers of the Way, said he lived as a residential assistant in Harvard undergraduate dorms while in medical school and was disturbed by what he saw. College corrupted students’ character instead of developing it, he said.
“The whole notion of education has become generally confined to academic thought, not so much to developing of the whole person, character, and integrity,” he said. “I think that’s a great tragedy.”
At typical colleges, Kuruvilla believes, students are susceptible to pornography, cheating, and even being sexually assaulted or abused. At Harvard, he said, he saw students take certain classes because they were easy or fun, such as Japanese cooking or a course on fairy tales.
He said Sattler will be academically rigorous and spiritually nurturing. The school’s stated mission is to “prepare students to serve Christ, the church, and the world.”
The college is targeting the home-schooled and other Christian students wary of a typical college environment. And indeed, some applicants said they were not interested in college until they heard about this school.
One applicant, Austin Lapp, lives in a community in rural Ohio where, he said, most people he knows work for a family business.
Lapp, 25, worked for his father’s kitchen-construction business for several years and taught at a religious school but said his dream is to teach English overseas.
He was apprehensive about attending college because he has heard that many young people lose their faith in college. That is why Sattler appeals to him.
“I had to ask myself how will four years in a secular school affect my character and my worldview and my faith, my relationship with Jesus,” he said.
The college is not affiliated with a specific denomination, but according to its website and application to state regulators, its beliefs correspond with a movement of Christianity known as Anabaptist. The school’s founding principles include the ideas that Christians should not serve in war or remarry after divorce.
To keep expenses low, the school will operate in an office building at 100 Cambridge St. and not offer housing or other amenities. The college will have three faculty and about 25 students the first year, with the goal of eventually enrolling 300.
The college’s academic model is unique. The faculty will teach some core courses in biblical languages and religious history, but many academic courses will be taken online. Students will watch lectures through free online learning platforms such as EdX, then attend classes to discuss the material with other students and professors. Faculty, who will be named later, will also mentor the students spiritually, Kuruvilla said.
The school will offer five majors: business, computer science, human biology, biblical and religious studies, and history. School officials hope to eventually expand to include engineering, physics, and journalism.
Only four new colleges have been approved in Massachusetts in the past five years, including Sattler, according to the state Department of Higher Education, all of them niche schools. Two are education schools, and one is for the maritime industry.
Yet small colleges especially are suffering lately and have increasing difficulty justifying their high costs to students worried about debt. For that reason, Chris Gabrieli, chairman of the state Board of Higher Education, said Sattler offers value to students.
Gabrieli said the board wanted to encourage the kind of innovative, cost-saving model the school is adopting while making sure its religious tenets do not discriminate.
“It’s fascinating,” he said.
The state board approved the college in 2016 and plans to monitor it for the first five years. The school is also seeking approval from a regional accrediting agency, and until then its students cannot access federally subsidized loans.
For now, Kuruvilla is running the school out of the office of his values-based investment firm, Eventide Asset Management, on the 35th floor of One International Place. Students have submitted their applications and will soon hear if they have been accepted.
Hannah Milioni, an applicant who lives in Medford, said she was not planning to attend college until she heard about Sattler. She said she wanted to attend a Christian college but worried the academics at a religious school might not be rigorous.
“Often in religious schools you have to choose between having a Christian school and a really good education,” she said.
Milioni, 17, was home-schooled and said she heard about the school from Kuruvilla because they attend the same church.
Kenneth Godoy, of Bedford, Pa., also heard about the school through church friends. The 21-year-old is interested in photography, graphic design, and poetry, but since the college does not offer those majors he said he might study history if he is accepted.
He said he is interested in the school for its religious affiliation and emphasis on community.
“It’s a Christian community, it’s a Christian atmosphere, and there is to some extent safety in that,” he said.