Berea’s 10th president, Dr. Cheryl L. Nixon, has spent her first year in office in countless conversations. She often reminds stakeholders how the College has long answered some of the most vexing issues facing higher education. Those answers began, of course, with Berea’s 19th-century founding, when it welcomed women and men, Black and white students, living and learning together. That was a brave answer for a divided nation.

Almost 170 years later, Dr. Nixon says, “It very much looks like colleges and universities today are in crisis, as some institutions are slashing budgets by cutting majors and staffing. In these situations, there is much gloom and doom—higher ed looks dark. I say, however, we need to look at an institution that has answers, that knows how to offer a bright light of life-changing education, of hope, of possibility.”

Berea continues to provide answers today to higher ed that other institutions would do well to follow. Nixon is always careful not to dismiss the many challenges to post-secondary education today; rather, she seeks to highlight Berea’s innovative model. And she has good examples to share.

Challenges Facing Higher Education Today

Many say that college is neither affordable nor accessible to students with lower household incomes. Bereans know that the College stopped charging tuition in 1892 and that Berea only serves students of promise eligible for a Pell Grant. On Sept. 7, 2023, the New York Times published its College Access Index, and it ranked Berea No. 1 in the nation in access. No other school listed in the ranking was close to the percentage of Pell-eligible students Berea serves.

“I am most proud that Berea is No. 1 at answering these questions and charting a pathway forward for the students who deserve it most,” Nixon said. “Berea is No. 1 at opening a world of ideas and possibilities to students who might have believed that higher ed was not available to them.”

Critics also argue that higher education fails to prepare students for the real world of work that awaits them. “Berea alumni know better than anyone how important the Labor Program was to preparing them for work beyond Berea,” Nixon said. “All students can get jobs that can complement their academic major, and all get a stipend to offset housing and meal fees.”

Berea also is helping students in internships and career development like never before. This summer, 400 students will participate in a paid internship of their own design; some of them will have a permanent job awaiting them at graduation. Career development support is robust, including advising through discernment, money for professional clothing and test preparation, and even at least $500 for every graduate to relocate or use for an apartment’s security deposit. “What other college does that for its students?” Nixon asks.

Criticism that college does not serve diverse students well has been leveled since Berea’s founding. And yet, both before and after the Day Law (the forced segregation of Berea College from 1904-1954), Berea serves students from a variety of places, races, genders and ethnicities. “While other colleges may say they welcome all,” Nixon said, “Berea means it through a deep sense of belonging. Our retention and graduation rates attest to that.” 

Brave Berea

Throughout her first year at Berea, President Nixon often asks how a school like Berea has such an inspirational model. For the answer, she points to Berea’s history—what she refers to as “the bold, courageous founding of Berea,” and she emphasizes “that Berea is a success because it is a Brave Berea.”

At its founding, Berea tackled not just the most difficult questions in education, but the defining question of America itself. “Imagine the audacity,” Nixon said, “both the inspirational force and courage of our founder, an abolitionist preacher whose dream was to educate Black and white together, female and male together, all in a spirit of impartial love and a belief that ‘God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth.’

“Building on that bold vision of equal access to education,” she continued, “let’s jump ahead to the late 1800s, when we instituted our unique tuition and work-program models. Yet again, Brave Berea.”

And in the 20th century, the College confirmed its commitment to Appalachia, particularly after Berea’s founding mission of interracial education was prohibited by the Kentucky legislature.

“We see ourselves as truly serving our state and region through that powerful force of educational access—and much more,” Nixon said.

In 2020, Berea provided more than $1 million in flood relief to eastern Kentucky. Berea’s Grow Appalachia program tackles food insecurity and creates healthy food systems, and the College serves as an anchor institution in the new Association for Teaching Black History in Kentucky.

“Again,” she reminds, “this is Brave Berea.”

Nixon always affirms the Great Commitments. “In the 1960s, as civil rights were being fought for, we were, yes again, Brave Berea, forming the Commitments to ensure that the College’s guiding principles would lead to a better world for all,” Nixon said. “They really are our North Star. We refer to them every day and challenge ourselves to put these ideals into action. They keep us honest; they keep us true—they keep us brave.”

Berea can continue to provide solutions to the newest challenges facing society, Nixon stressed. “Berea leads the country in providing access to education and graduating students debt-free,” she explained. “Berea is also known nationally for its innovative teaching—Berea doesn’t just provide access to education, it provides access to exceptional classrooms where students are encouraged to ask big questions. Our students can tackle the newest issues facing their generation. For example, how do we create new forms of human intelligence in a world of artificial intelligence? How do we create new types of human community and connection when our lives are becoming virtual, dominated by social media?”

Nixon is intent on proclaiming that Berea has the courage to put new ideas into action today and tomorrow—“connect[ing] innovation to bravery.” That work has been part of her Listening, Learning and Building Community Tour as well as the formulation of a nimble but necessary strategic plan.

“Berea is ready to tackle and lead on the issues facing higher ed,” Nixon said. “In fact, I believe we must lead on these issues—higher ed needs the solutions we have. Berea is ready to take them to the next level, to be inspirational with those solutions, to be brave and courageous with those solutions. Higher ed needs a Brave Berea more than ever. Our students need—and deserve—a Brave Berea more than ever.”


Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
We'd love to hear your thoughtsx