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By Robert A. Jones
Berea, Kentucky
he leafy campus of Berea College, at the edge of
Appalachia, has long been regarded as a place apart. It was
founded, after all, by utopian visionaries who encouraged
racial mixing in pre-Civil War Kentucky and, even today, Berea
presents itself as the exception-to-the-rule in higher education,
the debunker of academic myths, the reverser of trends.
Just how different is Berea? Plenty different.
Take, for example, the ominous trend in private college
tuition, where the bill for a college education has been rising
faster than house prices in California. At Berea, tuition is free
for its 1,500 students, a generositymade possible by the college’s
stunning $800million endowment.
Or consider the fact that private colleges increasingly have
become enclaves of the well-to-do. Some top private institutions
now report median family incomes for entering freshmen
in the range of $150,000. A study by the Higher Education
Research Institute found that, even at selective state universities,
40 percent of this year’s freshmen come from families making
more than $100,000 per year.
At Berea, whose campus could be amovie set for an elite
college, those demographics are nowhere to be found. In fact,
Berea will not accept well-to-do students. It considers only
students from the lowest economic strata, most of them from
backward pockets of Appalachia.The average family income of
incoming freshmen currently stands at $28,000.
Or take the current
willingness to coddle
students with dormitory
spas, massage therapists,
and parking garages for
their BMWs. Berea students
would smile at those
indulgences. If anyone is
providingmaid service
at Berea, it’s the students
themselves. Each works
ten to 15 hours a week in a
“labor position” that ranges
from janitorial work to
producing videotapes. And
campus parking is a breeze
because most students can’t have cars.
But the crux of the difference between Berea andmany
other private colleges is not the demographics or free tuition.
Rather, it is the presence of a collective idea about the mission
of the college, which is to transform the lives of poor but gifted
students fromAppalachia and then return them, as graduates,
to their communities so they can improve the lives of others.
“We’re educating our students to be engaged in a
Summer 2004
“Plain Living”
Berea College makes a commitment to the welfare of its students and its community
different vocational life and world than does a Stanford or a
Swarthmore,” said President Larry Shinn. “Being a CEOof a
major corporation is not really what we’re about, although some
of our students do that.The idea is for our graduates to leave
Berea and be engaged in a life of service to their communities,
to give something back.”
It sounds too sappy to be true: a private college in a bucolic
setting that gives away ninety-thousand-dollar educations to
poor kids, and so inspires those kids with a sense of mission
that they return and rebuild their broke-down communities.
But talk to students and teachers here, and they all seem
infused with that sense of commitment. “Most of us here
wouldn’t get the chance to go to college without Berea,” said
Jami Garth, a junior fromMonticello, Kentucky, who plans to
take up family counseling when she graduates. “We all have
something in common here, which is low income. We realize
we are being given this great opportunity, and, frankly, we don’t
want to blow it.”
A few doors down, Academic Provost Dave Porter said, “I
like to think of Berea as offering absolutely the best liberal arts
education that money can’t buy.This institution is a trust for the
people of the region. When you come here, you just get caught
up in the whole idea of the place.”
And the numbers suggest that Berea, by and large, succeeds
in its goal of supplying Appalachia with new generations of
leaders. More than half of Berea students go on to graduate
school, but eventually about 58 percent enter public service
or nonprofit careers, most of them in the Appalachian region.
Recent Berea graduates have taken up projects ranging from
food co-ops and environmental restoration to small-business
Take a walk around the Berea campus, and initially you
Sreirath Khieu, a Cambodian student known on campus as “Chan,” makes early
American brooms in her “labor position” at Berea College.
At Berea, tuition
is free for its
1,500 students, a
generosity made
possible by the
college’s stunning
$800 million
Photos by Stewart Bowman for CrossTalk