I'm impatient, so I'll just begin today. The first thing to consider when imagining a college is what it should cost to attend. It must not be free because going to college should be the result of a decision that weighs a short-term investment against some long term goals. On the other hand, it should not be so expensive that "elite" simply means "wealthy" (or that only exceptionally talented poor people can go to elite colleges through the generosity of scholarships). How, much, then, is reasonable?
My suggestion is that it should cost, all inclusive, $12,000 dollars a year to attend college in the United States.* By "all inclusive", I mean exactly that. $12,000 dollars should cover tuition, materials, room and board. This means that a college campus must provide cheap accommodation and food for all the students. Ideally, students would not be able to spend personal wealth to improve their quality of life while at school. That is, economic inequality should be suspended.
I arrive at $12,000 by way of another utopian notion: basic income. I believe that young people, based on their demonstrated merit in high school, should be able to attend a college by spending their entire basic income for the time they attend. They will only graduate (with a satisfying grade) if they devote themselves entirely to the effort, which means they will be unable to hold a job on the side. School should require all their energy. Or, rather, it should provide a context in which all their energies can be meaningfully devoted to learning.
Let's imagine a school with an incoming class of 600 students. Roughly 2400 students in all would attend at any given time. That's a revenue stream of 28.8 million dollars. 250 faculty and 50 staff members earning an average salary of $70,000 would cost 21 million. I have not worked out whether you can feed 2400 people for a year on $7.8 million. I hope someone can find a way (or tell me how much I've got left over after everyone's been fed). The students would be required to do a certain amount of (unpaid) work on the campus in order to graduate. (Again, I would recommend not letting wealthy students pay their way out of this, for obvious reasons.)
I believe the grounds and buildings should be donated by the community. This will normally mean some sort of state subsidy, involving a land grand with a tax exemption for as long as the college operates. Also, there ought to be an endowment, funded by the alumni and other benefactors, both for the expansion of facilities and their upkeep. The luxuriousness of a college should in no way depend on the tuition fees (which should be the same at all colleges); it should depend entirely on a combination of state funding and private contributions.
I'm leaving a lot of things out here, of course. The important thing to keep in mind is that I'm only trying to imagine the operation of a physical place that lets people eat and sleep, teach and learn. Very little is required of such a space in principle. It can be done cheaply. In subsequent posts I want to say something about what the place should look like and what should go on there.
*It may rightly be asked why I, a Dane, would set my mind to imagining the ideal American college. That subject is worth a post of its own, but, to be brief, I believe that the future depends on America. I don't believe that any utopian schemes can be implemented anywhere until they are, at the very least, imaginable in America.