Meet Berea College, the Innovative College That Charges No Tuition & Gives Students a Chance to Graduate Debt-Free

“The loom­ing stu­dent loan default cri­sis is worse than we thought,” writes Pro­fes­sor of Eco­nom­ics Judith Scott-Clay­ton at Brook­ings. I’ll leave it to you to parse the report, but to sum up… it looks bad. Sub­prime mort­gage cri­sis bad. Maybe… there’s anoth­er way? Work­ing mod­els of ful­ly sub­si­dized high­er ed sys­tems in oth­er countries—like ful­ly sub­si­dized health­care systems—strongly sug­gest as much. Some high-end pro­grams in the U.S., like NYU’s new­ly free med­ical school, have tak­en an ear­ly lead, hop­ing to solve the prob­lem of doc­tor short­ages.

But there’s an ear­li­er, hum­bler, more pro­gres­sive mod­el of free col­lege in the States, Kentucky’s lit­tle-known Berea Col­lege, found­ed in 1855 by an abo­li­tion­ist Pres­by­ter­ian min­is­ter John Gregg Fee as the first inte­grat­ed, co-edu­ca­tion­al col­lege in the Amer­i­can South. “It has not charged stu­dents tuition since 1892,” Adam Har­ris reports at The Atlantic. “Every stu­dent on cam­pus works, and its labor pro­gram is like work-study on steroids. The work includes every­day tasks such as jan­i­to­r­i­al ser­vices, but old­er stu­dents are often assigned jobs aligned to their vol­un­teer pro­grams.”

Rather than work­ing to pay off tuition, “stu­dents receive a phys­i­cal check for their labor that can go toward hous­ing and liv­ing expens­es.” Near­ly half of the school’s grad­u­ates leave with no debt, with the remain­ing car­ry­ing an aver­age of less than $7,000 from room and board expens­es. Com­pare that to a nation­al aver­age of $37,172 in loan debt per stu­dent for the class of 2016. How does Berea do it? It funds tuition with its large endow­ment of 1.2 bil­lion dol­lars.

Through a per­verse his­tor­i­cal irony, as Har­ris describes, the same racist hatred that ran Berea’s founder out of town in 1859, and forced the school to seg­re­gate in 1904, made cer­tain that its fund­ing mod­el would sus­tain it far into its (re)integrated future. After Kentucky’s pas­sage of the so-called “Day Law,” bar­ring black stu­dents from attend­ing, mon­ey began to pour in.

The prospect of edu­cat­ing poor white peo­ple from Appalachia for no tuition was some­thing that the com­mu­ni­ty could get behind. And near­ly 100 years ago, on Octo­ber 20, 1920, the board made sure that the col­lege would be able to do so for a long time. Accord­ing to Jeff Amburgey, the school’s chief finan­cial offi­cer, “The board essen­tial­ly said, for Berea to sus­tain its fund­ing mod­el,” any unre­strict­ed bequests—essentially mon­ey that some­one leaves the insti­tu­tion after they have passed away, that is not tagged for a spe­cif­ic purpose—could not be spent right away. Instead, he says, the mon­ey was expect­ed to be treat­ed as part of the endow­ment, and only the return on that invest­ment could be spent.

Berea could not, as some oth­er schools do, spend mil­lions on foot­ball sta­di­ums instead of invest­ing in its stu­dents. In the 50s, the school rein­te­grat­ed, but the process was very slow, as it was every­where in the coun­try. “The com­mu­ni­ty was gone,” says Berea his­to­ry pro­fes­sor Alices­tyne Tur­ley, refer­ring to the Recon­struc­tion-era com­mu­ni­ty that had a stu­dent body mix of 50–50 black and white stu­dents.

The school had to relearn its found­ing prin­ci­ples, as expressed in its founder’s cho­sen mot­to, from the Book of Acts: “God has made of one blood all peo­ples of the earth.” Now most of the enrollees, low-income white and black stu­dents most­ly from Appalachia, qual­i­fy for Pell grants. 10 per­cent of the bud­get comes from char­i­ta­ble gifts. But the school pays the bulk of the tuition, $39,400 per stu­dent, from its endow­ment.

Is this sus­tain­able? Time will tell. Though a 1937 pro­mo­tion­al film, above, from the college’s seg­re­gat­ed past decries “the false glit­ter of easy pros­per­i­ty,” its cur­rent pres­i­dent tells Har­ris “we’re not the kind of insti­tu­tion that holds the world of finance in dis­dain. We are depen­dent on it.” A stock mar­ket crash could bank­rupt Berea, and no bailouts would be forth­com­ing. But for now, the col­lege thrives, with very impres­sive rank­ing num­bers in the U.S. News Best Col­leges report (it comes in a #4 in Best Under­grad­u­ate Teach­ing and #3 in Most Inno­v­a­tive Schools).

The school hosts bell hooks as a pro­fes­sor in res­i­dence and boasts as an alum­nus Carter G. Wood­son, the “father of black his­to­ry,” with a cen­ter named for him whose mis­sion is “to assert the kin­ship of all peo­ple and pro­vide inter­ra­cial edu­ca­tion with a par­tic­u­lar empha­sis on under­stand­ing and equal­i­ty among blacks and whites as a foun­da­tion for build­ing com­mu­ni­ty among all peo­ples of the earth.”

Maybe if there were a way to, say, fund Berea, and col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties nation­wide, through some kind of, say, tax­a­tion on, say, the most prof­itable com­pa­nies on the plan­et, or some such… just imag­ine.…

via The Atlantic

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Mas­ter List of 1,300 Free Cours­es From Top Uni­ver­si­ties: 45,000 Hours of Audio/Video Lec­tures

How Fin­land Cre­at­ed One of the Best Edu­ca­tion­al Sys­tems in the World (by Doing the Oppo­site of U.S.)

In Japan­ese Schools, Lunch Is As Much About Learn­ing As It’s About Eat­ing

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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