Sunday, July 20, 2008

A no-tuition, no-frills college -- and best of all, it is serving Appalachia

Tamar Lewin has a story about Berea College, in Berea, Kentucky, in today's NYT. The school charges no tuition, relying largely on its huge endowment to do so. Partly as a consequence, admission is highly competitive. Only 1 in 22 applicants is admitted, and its yield among those admitted exceeds that of Harvard. Some quotes from Lewin's story follow:

Actually, what buys that education is Berea’s $1.1 billion endowment, which puts the college among the nation’s wealthiest. But unlike most well-endowed colleges, Berea has no football team, coed dorms, hot tubs or climbing walls. Instead, it has a no-frills budget, with food from the college farm, handmade furniture from the college crafts workshops, and 10-hour-a-week campus jobs for every student.

Berea’s approach provides an unusual perspective on the growing debate over whether the wealthiest universities are doing enough for the public good to warrant their tax exemption, or simply hoarding money to serve an elite few. As many elite universities scramble to recruit more low-income students, Berea’s no-tuition model has attracted increasing attention.

Lewin calls the college a "haven" for lower-income students who don't have the clothes and consumer goods to fit in elsewhere. More than 75% of Berea students receive Pell grants.

Lewin's story also discusses at some length why other prestigious private schools (such as Amherst College) have rejected the Berea model in favor of continuing to grow their endowments, even as they have modestly increased the number of students from needy families and as some have moved from a loan-based financial aid model to a grant-based one. Berea's operating budget is less than half that of Amherst, while Berea has about 100 more students than the elite New England college.

The college is located in Berea, Kentucky, which, with a population of 9,851, is not rural by Census Bureau standards but is non-metro by the OMB definition. The college's website touts its diversity and features many faces of color. Here's some info from the institution's website, which indicates a self-consciously Appalachian focus:

Berea College is distinctive among institutions of higher learning. Founded in 1855 as the first interracial and coeducational college in the South, Berea charges no tuition and admits only academically promising students, primarily from Appalachia, who have limited economic resources.


Berea's primary service region is the Southern Appalachian region, but students come from all states in the U.S. and in a typical year, from more than 60 other countries representing a rich diversity of colors, cultures, and faiths. About one in three students represents an ethnic minority.

Berea continues to build upon a distinctive history of 150 years of learning, labor and service, and find new ways to apply our mission (the Great Commitments) to contemporary times by promoting kinship among all people, serving communities in Appalachia and beyond and living sustainably to conserve limited natural resources.

One of the website's revolving slogans: "You're worth more than the tuition you can afford." Another is, "Grow your potential, not your debt." (Photo also from college website's homepage). How refreshing! A genuine effort to spread the wealth to a population so often overlooked by both public and private decisionmakers in this country.

Comment: As of4:30 EST on the day of publication, this was the most emailed story on the NYT website. I wonder if it is making the movers and shakers of the world, who tend not be from or in Appalachia, think critically about how prestigious universities are using their endowments.

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