A College That Cares

Berea has always been for students who can't afford college

Berea College, in rural Kentucky, was founded in 1855 by a Christian minister. The private liberal arts work college is known, at least regionally, for providing free education to students and for having been the first college in the South to be co-ed and racially integrated. Since its beginning, Berea was meant for students who could not afford college. The students have always worked on campus to help support themselves.

BBC News recently ran a feature on Berea College (Dec. 3) with the headline “Has a U.S. university cracked student debt?” While the American media periodically report on our mounting student-debt problem, and politicians offer hasty solutions, it is good to examine a college that keeps its graduates’ debts under control.

According to the BBC report, “More than half of Berea’s incoming 2018 class had an expected family contribution of $0. The mean family income of a first-year student is less than $30,000. Around 70% of students are from Appalachia, where around one in five people live below the poverty line.” Berea College president Lyle Roelofs explains that the school can offer these students a high-quality education for two reasons.

First is Berea’s endowment which, as of this year, is $1.2 billion. The fund is nearly 165 years old. Roelofs says, “If you don’t have tuition revenue, then you want to have a powerful friend like the American stock market.” The BBC reports that “about $60m is withdrawn from the endowment each year to support Berea’s operating budget, including tuition.”

Second is Berea’s work program, which requires each student to work on campus for at least 10 hours a week, similar to federal work-study programs at other U.S. universities. Roelofs brags, “We don’t just admit every student, we hire every student.” The students’ labor and a portion of their paycheck are used to keep the college running.

How well does this work? The BBC reports that “in 2019, 49% of Berea students graduated with zero debt, even after food, housing and other living expenses.” Those with debt “held an average of $6,693.” Under $6,700 — not bad! Except in unusual cases, a bachelor’s degree is definitely worth the cost of a cheap used car.

Berea College has about 1,600 undergraduate students, and it hasn’t built fancy amenities (such as the elsewhere infamous “lazy river” pool) used to attract the wealthy. But the campus is “archetypically collegiate”-looking, including “tree-lined quads” nestled within 9,000 acres of the college’s own green space, which in turn is surrounded by hundreds of miles of forest in the Appalachian foothills.

The final bit of good news about Berea is it is the most selective school in the state, according to admission records. Students are accepted on grounds of both academic performance and financial status. Academic rigor is expected and maintained.

With the overall U.S. student debt total now at $1.5 trillion, more and more colleges need to solve the debt problem. The state of New Mexico has announced plans to make its state schools free for all students, using revenues from the state’s booming oil industry. While more populous states may not be able to offer so much, surely some creative solutions can be tried. Berea’s president Roelofs opines, “I do think there could be a Berea in every state.”

Which leads me to ask, How about our small Catholic or Jesuit colleges? When I compare the tuition/living costs at small Catholic colleges in the Midwest ($40,000-60,000 per year) with Berea’s model, I am embarrassed — especially for the Jesuits, as wealthy as they are.


A link to the BBC story: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-50551565


Barbara E. Rose is Web Editor of the NOR.

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