On Oct. 13, 2018, the Berea College website had the largest single-day traffic spike in its history. Two days earlier, Adam Harris had written an article about Berea for The Atlantic titled: “The little college where tuition is free and every student is given a job.”
That article started a chain of coverage and news segments that effectively doubled Berea’s daily web page views for a year. The College was the subject of articles and highlighted by news organizations like CNN, CBS and NPR.
At a time when student loan debt warnings had been growing and building in intensity, the article was timely and it resonated with people. It still does.
That’s because U.S. student-loan debt has become a $1.8 trillion crisis, twice that of credit-card debt and is the second highest category of consumer debt, behind only mortgages.
The burden of student debt has been growing out of proportion with earning potential as well. The price of education is rising eight times faster than earnings. It means that the debt that some students are taking on is outpaced by their ability to pay it off.
The student-debt crisis is also one that disproportionately impacts economically disadvantaged students and families, the same students and families Berea College serves. The 2018 spike in web traffic shows how focused people are on this problem. Could Berea College have the answer?
Berea College’s funding model was (and still is) progressive for its time. Instead of treating education as a consumer good to be paid for in tuition by students, Berea College puts its endowment to work investing it for the purpose of offsetting a large portion of every student’s tuition, leaving just 9 percent of the College’s operating budget to be raised every year. We are continually fundraising.
In The Atlantic article, Harris teased, “can other schools replicate the model?”
The answer is yes. There are plenty of colleges with much larger endowments than Berea, and they could choose to be tuition free tomorrow. But for schools that don’t have large endowments, investing wouldn’t yield enough to offset operational expenses. Additionally, Berea’s model doesn’t scale well. Even with investing our endowment, Berea College is only able to offer Tuition Promise Scholarships to 1,600-plus students each year. Berea is the most selective college in Kentucky for that reason—it has more applicants than it is able to accommodate. Other schools can replicate the model, but it doesn’t solve the problem.
While Berea’s funding model is not the solution to the student-debt crisis, Berea can contribute substantially to the conversation on debt-free education. All Bereans know its value.
The Value of Free
Statistics show that having a four-year degree sets a graduate on a trajectory to a better life, but many brilliant young minds cannot afford to go to college. Others leave college with a mountain of debt that burdens them for decades.
Debt limits options and narrows career paths. It doesn’t allow for the sort of exploration for which college was meant. The college experience should be about learning, making connections, growing, and above all, exploring one’s full range of interests. Ultimately, college should free students to develop their best possible life.
For all these reasons, it is important for American society to examine the debt challenges of higher education.
This isn’t about Berea College, though. This is about what a debt-free education could mean for society as a whole. Those best equipped to tell that story are our alumni. And the best way for the College to contribute to the national conversation is to amplify their voices. Their stories bring Harris’ article to life; let’s hope the country is continuing to pay attention.
On April 8th, the College will be releasing a video series discussing student loan debt and no tuition titled “The Value of Free”. Watch the trailer below and join us at www.valueoffree.com