The college where no student has paid tuition in 126 years

by ADAM HARRIS

Berea College, in Kentucky, has paid for every enrollee’s education using its endowment for 126 years. Can other schools replicate the model? PHOTO/Library of Congress

There’s a small burst of air that explodes from every clap. And when hundreds of people are clapping in unison, it begins to feel like a breeze—one that was pulsing through the Phelps Stokes Chapel at Berea College in Kentucky. The students and staff that had gathered here were stomping, clapping, and singing along, as they were led in a rendition of the Civil Rights era anthem, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.”

They had packed into the wood-framed building for a convocation address, where the speaker, Diane Clayton-White, would be talking about “Jesus, the Ultimate Rebel with a Cause.” Berea does not have a sectarian affiliation, but the remnants of its Christian foundation are readily apparent—so much so that, as Alicestyne Turley, a history professor at the college, told me, “we have students who come here who think they’re coming to a Christian college,” à la Liberty University or Notre Dame.

White’s address was dotted with the markings of a Sunday sermon—not the stuffy kind, but the kind I’d heard time and again growing up—the jokes, the whooping, the lessons that come in threes. In her speech, White explained to the students that it didn’t take supernatural abilities to do great things—only a purpose—and that all the evidence they needed could be found on the campus where they stood.

Berea College isn’t like most other colleges. It was founded in 1855 by a Presbyterian minister who was an abolitionist. It was the first integrated, co-educational college in the south. And it has not charged students tuition since 1892. 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 academic program, and work on things such as web production or managing volunteer programs. And students receive a physical check for their labor that can go towards housing and living expenses. Forty-five percent of graduates have no debt, and the ones who do have an average of less than $7,000 in debt, according to Luke Hodson, the college’s director of admissions.

On top of all of that: More than 90 percent of Berea College students are eligible to receive the Pell Grant—often used as a proxy for low-income enrollment. Most of those students, 70 percent to be exact, are from Appalachia—where nearly one of every five people live below the poverty line. And that recruiting pipeline in Appcalachia produces a rather diverse class—more than 40 percent of the student body identifies as racial minorities.

Every couple of years, Berea College makes national news, often for its tuition-free promise—a promise that has become all the more noteworthy as the national student debt crisis has grown. But late last year, Berea College made headlines for a different reason: a provision in the Republican-led tax reform effort that would have charged colleges with large endowments a 1.4 percent tax on the investment earnings from their endowments.

Berea has a $1.2 billion endowment—which is how it can afford to cover the tuition of every student—and the school estimated that the tax would cost it upwards of a million dollars a year, effectively forcing it to cut back on the number of students admitted. The rebuke came quickly from both sides of the aisle. Democrats argued that it was an example of Republican mismanagement of the entire tax debate, and Republicans painted the debacle as Democrats holding a worthy college hostage. It was a point of order raised by Senator Bernie Sanders, Republicans argued, that prevented Berea from being exempt from the tax in the initial bill. Higher education leaders—even notable Republicans such as the Bush-era education secretary Margaret Spellings—were skeptical of the tax. The tax’s goal was ostensibly to punish colleges for amassing large endowments as the cost of college was rising, and not evenly helping students. By ensnaring Berea, a college that charged no tuition because it has such a large endowment, the logic of the tax broke down.

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