Berea College: Education without a cost

This article is part of a series of features on unique colleges. Look out for the next issue to read about another school you may not have heard of.


Flickr User IMCBerea College

By Yolanda Spura and Rachel Lu

Affording college is difficult — the average undergraduate student faces $30,100 in loans when they graduate. By not charging tuition, Berea College offers a solution to this issue. All students receive the Tuition Promise Scholarship, which amounts to nearly $100,000 over the course of four years. Although the scholarship doesn’t cover books, supplies, housing or meals, students can also apply for other grants and scholarships.

Berea was established in Kentucky in 1855 as the first interracial and coeducational college in the South, and exclusively admits academically promising students whose family income falls within the bottom 40 percent of U.S. households.

The college is able to offer 75 percent of its students free tuition through its $1.08 billion endowment, with the rest of its free tuition scholarships coming from alumni donations and state and federal financial aid.

Berea exclusively admits academically promising students whose family income falls within the bot- tom 40 percent of U.S. households.

“We can literally come to Berea with nothing but what you can carry, and graduate debt free,” Berea’s Associate Provost for Enrollment Management Joseph P. Bagnoli Jr. said to the New York Times. “We call it the best education money can’t buy.”

In exchange for free tuition, students work a minimum of ten hours in campus and service jobs as part of its Labor Program. The goals of this program are to help students develop responsibility, accountability, teamwork and initiative, as well as allow students to work in areas that would support their career interests. Students are assigned a job for their first year on campus, and are then given the freedom to secure their own positions in subsequent years.

“Students can often tailor the work component of their education to issues they care deeply about,” Clear Path College Counseling founder Mark Clevenger said. “Many Berea students are working in social justice-related jobs.  These experiences may lead to career paths they didn’t originally consider.”

Berea has BA or BS offerings in 28 fields. Additionally, Berea has a very strong nursing program — the 5th-best in the nation according, an information site for nursing students. It also offers a dual degree program with the University of Kentucky, where students can earn a BA degree from Berea and a BS in engineering from the University of Kentucky. Since the student to faculty ratio is 10-to-1, students can expect small class sizes and the chance to become well-acquainted with their professors.

The college emphasizes community service, living sustainably and promoting understanding among all people. It also values diversity, with one in three students being an ethnic minority. Berea is selective — it has an acceptance rate of 33.7 percent — but it’s also been ranked as the number one liberal arts school by Washington Monthly because of how well it serves low-income and first-generation students. There is no fee to apply, and although an interview is required, free housing is provided for families who are bringing their students to interview on campus.

Money is often a limiting factor in the college selection process, and student debt poses a big problem for many individuals — according to the US News and World Report, it takes 21 years on average to pay off loans for the average bachelor’s degree. For some, a tuition-free education from Berea College may be the solution.

“Particularly for underserved populations, tuition-free colleges can be life-changer,” Clevenger said. “Students often come from families who could simply not afford private college tuition otherwise.”