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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, April 14, 2024

Berea College provides free tuition with $1.1 billion endowment

In a country where the rise of college tuition is making the pursuit of higher education increasingly exclusive, it seems far-fetched that a private college could be tuition-free.

But Berea College, a small liberal arts institution in Kentucky, is showing the rest of the country that higher education should not necessarily be reserved for the wealthy.

Berea, which was founded in 1855, was originally established to provide education for freed slaves and low-income students from Appalachia who could not afford to go to other colleges. Today, each of its 1,500 enrolled students is offered the equivalent of a full-tuition scholarship for each year of undergraduate education.

While Berea's $1.1 billion endowment makes it one of the wealthiest in the United States, the school axes the common luxuries appreciated by students at similarly wealthy institutions, like state-of-the-art facility upgrades — and instead relegates $23,000 to each student's education every year.

Berea's Director of Public Relations Tim Jordan said that while many other schools cannot forego providing these luxuries and still appeal to its applicants, Berea has this option because of the pool of students it draws.

"Each school has to appeal to [its] particular kind of market," Jordan said. "Berea students don't expect that."

Berea's hefty endowment funds pump life — and students — into its campus. Although some of the funds go to non-educational expenses like sports facilities, the primary purpose of Berea's endowment is to assure that tuition is entirely subsidized. Because its endowment is directed primarily toward this goal, students have to sacrifice some of the luxuries of higher-tuition institutions. Jordan, however, believes that the students don't mind.

"Our students don't seem to miss those kinds of things; that is not what they're interested in," Jordan said. "They recognize that this is a great opportunity for them, and they're here to get an education, not just to play games."

The school's dedication to staying tuition-free has not marred its reputation in the world of higher education: Berea is often ranked the top comprehensive college in the South by U.S.News & World Report.

While the students at Berea have no tuition checks to write, their education does not come completely free. Each student must spend at least ten hours per week working at a campus job that may range from staffing the school's hotel to building dorm furniture in the wood shop to participating in school administration.

With its financial load lightened by the ability to use unpaid student employees, Berea can afford its no-tuition policy.

Though many believe that a full course load does not lend itself to balancing a part-time job, Jordan said Berea students make their employment an integral and essential part of the college experience.

"We consider their labor assignment as part of their education experience," Jordan said. "They are learning other job skills … besides just flipping burgers or something. Our students are really building real portfolios that they can use later in life."

Berea has recently stood out in the public eye primarily because so many colleges, including Tufts — which raised its costs by 5.33 percent this year — has many questioning why schools do not use their large endowments to subsidize more of their own students' educations before spending thousands of dollars building new gyms and theatres.

For some Jumbos, exchanging luxuries and planned programs for a smaller tuition bill would be a welcomed change.

"I wouldn't mind paying some tuition," freshman Syed Badruddin said. "But Tufts is really expensive … I think Tufts should try to lower the tuition."

Badruddin, who was recently part of the orientation process, also believes that Tufts should not allocate so much of its budget to non-educational expenses.

"There's a lot of unnecessary junk behind orientation," he said. "They have a lot of areas where they could cut back."

But administrators at Tufts maintain that the university's tuition is necessary to provide students with a certain level of education and experience expected on the Hill.

Dean of Undergraduate Education James Glaser said that while Berea's no-tuition policy is very praiseworthy, it is not a policy that is possible for every school.

"I think what Berea is doing is very admirable," Glaser said in an e-mail to the Daily. "I'm glad such a place exists. I don't think it's a model for Tufts."

Like all institutions with endowments funded by donors, Tufts cannot freely spend its money because the administrators are restricted by the desires of the donor.

"Donations to the university often are attached to certain causes such as financial aid or an endowed chair," Glaser said. "The Office of Advancement aims to make the contribution satisfying to the donor and helpful to the university."