Ticket to a Better Life

   by Stephen Smith

If your family can afford college, don't bother with Berea. This residential liberal arts college in eastern Kentucky takes money - the lack of it - as a decisive factor in admissions.

Jane Tonello preparing a loom in Berea's weaving shop. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

"We're looking for the poor valedictorians," says Berea College Dean of Enrollment Joe Bagnoli. "We want to make certain that those students who have the academic potential to be successful in college, but lack the resources, are afforded that opportunity."

Berea College does not charge tuition. Most of the students come from a nine-state area of the southern Appalachian mountains. Virtually all come from the bottom third of America's economic ladder. The average annual gross family income of Berea students is $27,528. More than half are the first in their family to go to college.

Senior Jane Tonello of Nashville, Tenn. graduated this year as a pre-med biology major. Tonello says she might not have gone to a more conventional college that charges tuition, even if she had been granted partial financial aid. "When I entered college my brother was also going," Tonello says. "So my mother could not afford to pay for both me and my brother. I was very, very fortunate that I got accepted here."

Tonello's mother did not go to college and works as an administrative assistant at a Nashville hospital. Tonello plans to go to medical school and specialize in renal pathology. The field interests her because her family has a history of diabetes. She speaks in a calm, confident, almost businesslike manner as she reflects on her college years and the road ahead.

"I think I'm one of the few people that I know that didn't change their mind halfway into going to college. I wanted to be a pre-med biology major when I came as a freshman and I stayed that way," she says.

Berea College's endowment of some $975 million is key to the tuition plan. Most of the gifts to the fund came from small donors who value the school's mission, Berea officials say.

With its leafy campus and its classic red brick buildings, Berea has the archetypal look of the residential liberal arts college in the classic small college town. Berea College's mission has changed over time but the school was unusual from the start. Berea was founded in 1855 by Christian abolitionists who defied Kentucky's southern, pro-slavery conventions. The founders maintained that blacks and whites - as well as men and women - should learn and worship together. Berea was shut down by gun-toting neighbors on the eve of the Civil War. It reopened in 1865 to serve freed slaves and those poor, white Appalachian folk who were prepared to attend with blacks. Berea stopped charging tuition in 1892. The school covered the cost through scholarships and endowment proceeds and by requiring students to work on campus.

Student relaxing on the campus of Berea College in Berea, Ky. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

"The idea was, we will provide a way for you to lift yourself up through your mind, through your education," says Berea College President Larry Shinn. "Berea really began as a utopian community focused on education."

A Virtually Free Education

Today, the practical meets the utopian. Berea gives each incoming student a free laptop assuming many could not afford this modern-day essential. Berea spends about $24,100 to educate each of its 1,570 students. The full cost-per-student at many other small, liberal arts colleges can easily reach two and three times that amount (but at most private colleges students pay just a part of the cost. The rest is covered by financial aid, endowments and other sources).

Berea has a pleasant but no-frills campus. It's stayed out of the "college arms race" to build plush new dorms and state-of-the-art athletic facilities. To keep expenses down, Berea still requires students to work about 12 hours a week in jobs that maintain the college. Students work as teaching assistants, landscapers, dormitory staff and janitors.

While most colleges have work-study programs as part of their financial aid offerings, Berea's labor program is one of its core values. Banners flapping across the Berea campus declare a school motto: "Learning, Labor, Service." The labor part teaches students essential skills and habits for success in the workplace, such as responsibility, timeliness and professional behavior. Service means volunteering to serve the Berea College community and - especially after graduation - the Appalachian region and the world.

"Students have learning goals built into their labor assignments," Shinn says. "We believe all work has integrity. All work has value. But it's value not just for yourself, but for the broader community."

Junior physics major Tommy Boykin's job is to help run lab sessions in his department. One morning he helped students set up an experiment to demonstrate Kirchhoff's Voltage Law, a fundamental principle of electricity. "I like teaching," Boykin says of his teaching assistant work. "It's just cool that I have all this knowledge in my mind and can tell somebody else and get them to understand." Boykin is certain that he'll go on to get a Ph.D. and possibly become a physics professor himself.

Physics major Tommy Boykin is a teaching assistant in the lab. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

Boykin was raised in Birmingham, Ala. by a single mom who worked and raised two kids while getting a Ph.D. in biochemistry. His mom finished just as Boykin graduated from high school. Boykin pays for his own room, board and other non-tuition expenses through the labor program and with summer jobs, a total of about $2,000 each year. This "term bill" is based on the student's ability to pay. Some of the poorest students pay no term bill at all.

"It's not that my mom said, 'OK. You're on your own.'" Boykin says. "But I told her, 'Let me see what I can do.' It's been interesting. Paying for things by myself and being responsible for what I need to do has helped me grow up."

The free tuition at Berea attracts plenty of applicants. This year the school will admit only about 13 percent of those who apply, which ranks it as a highly selective college. But Dean of Enrollment Joe Bagnoli still worries about whether the college – along with the higher education system in general - is reaching all of the gifted-but-poor students it should. He says some families show a cultural resistance to investing in higher education.

"They haven't seen somebody take on $35,000 dollars of loans for a job they might get when they graduate from college. And, of course, as our economy struggles it becomes an increasingly difficult thing to sell, if you will, to a student and a family," Bagnoli says.

When Berea President Larry Shinn talks to potential students and families in disadvantaged communities, he pitches a liberal arts education as a job security measure. He argues that a more targeted, vocational education my not be as practical as majoring in English or political science.

The Berea College campus is lined with banners proclaiming the college motto: Learning, Labor, Service. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

"Any job skill you learn today will be obsolete in five years," Shinn says. "Consequently, learning how to learn is incredibly important. And if you ask business people, 'What skills are you looking for in the new people you hire?' It is people who can think well, can read difficult texts, can tackle complex problems from a variety of ways, and then articulate that." These skills, he adds, are what liberal arts colleges teach.

Graduates from more affluent colleges often leave with two advantages that are scarce at Berea. First, they have older relatives or family friends in professional fields who can help a recent grad find that crucial first career job. Second, they've gained a cadre of classmates who have learned from their middle and upper-class parents that who you know can matter as much as what you know. For many graduates of elite schools, the social web of classmates and alumni can pave the career path.

Berea College Academic Vice President Stephanie Browner worries that this lesson may not get as ingrained in successful graduates from low-income backgrounds. "There's a lot of stumbling as they head out the door," Browner says, "even with a great diploma. We're so certain that the diploma is what makes an individual successful. It's not only the diploma. It's a lot of networking and knowing how to knock on doors." Browner says Berea is strengthening programs like alumni internship networks that create what she calls "the bridge out" of college and into adult life.

On the other hand, students from families who have struggled to survive enter college with a kind of pragmatic, ground-level sensibility that more privileged kids may lack. Junior Traci Sisson is majoring in theater and says the parents of some of her fellow theater geeks shake their heads at such a seemingly impractical field of study. Sisson counts herself lucky.

"Mom has always been supportive because she knows I'm not going to let myself starve," Sisson says backstage as she gets into costume and makeup for a performance. She also feels well-prepared for the work world if treading the boards falls through.

"We've been taught here that there are a lot of corporate jobs and career paths that are actually looking for people like us because of how well we can work with one another and communicate with one another," Sisson says. "And put up with one another."

Sisson takes up her position in the wings, ready to head out onto the Berea theater stage. It's a performance of Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour. Sisson plays an entrepreneurial boarding school teacher battling prejudice and lies in the big, hard world.

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