BEREA, Ky. — Berea College, founded 150 years ago to educate freed slaves and “poor white mountaineers,” accepts only applicants from low-income families, and it charges no tuition.
“You can literally come to Berea with nothing but what you can carry, and graduate debt free,” said Joseph P. Bagnoli Jr., the associate provost for enrollment management. “We call it the best education money can’t buy.”
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.
This interests me mostly because I’ve seen my own great state university suckle ever more enthusiastically at the corporate teat in the last 40 years as backwards-ass lawmakers starve it for public funding on the basis that education makes y’all liberal, and some prof somewhere said something mean about the flag, and fuck ’em, basically, we’ve got banks to run. There was a part of me that couldn’t exactly blame an educational institution for finding funds where it could get them, and if the public won’t support a public university, well, then fuck it, we’ll take what we’ve got even if what we’ve got is money to endow a chair in I Love Theory that’ll go unfilled while scholarship funds languish.
But this place turns that whole equation on its head. You can have my Badger hockey team when you pry it from my cold dead fingers, there’s a place for the glory and grace of human sport, but if that’s one end of the spectrum where what we spend on merchandise could curedeath, we need to know where the other one is, and this looks like a really good example of it.