The Value of Free

Dr. Lyle Roelofs headshot[This post is adapted from a column that appeared in the Richmond Register on September 21, 2019.  Bereans reading it will already be familiar with some of its points and themes.]

Recently, the Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education named Berea College the No. 1 “best value” college in the nation. With Berea’s no-tuition promise, the ranking seems sort of obvious, but the true value of “tuition-free” is worthy of further comment.

If student debt is any indicator, free is worth a great deal!  This year, student loan debt topped $1.5 trillion, second only to mortgage debt. Defaults on this debt are also at record levels.  We can take a number of things from this staggering number. One, there is a lot of perceived value in education so students and families are willing to take on debt to better themselves through education. Another is that the cost of getting an education has become tremendously burdensome for the typical American family.  This debt has real impact on the people who hold it—people you and I know and love. Student loan debt means young people often must delay buying a home and cannot be full participants in the national economy. The MBA degree or other further study that a person might need to get a better job might have to be deferred, too.

The burden of debt has an even larger impact on low-income and first-generation students. They know that education is the key to moving up financially and socially, but find themselves in a tough predicament. A scholarship isn’t always enough because tuition isn’t the only barrier. For them, going to college means delaying a paycheck that could help those they love and having to take out loans makes that choice even tougher.

These burdens and our mission of providing transformative opportunity to students who cannot afford it are why Berea College has not charged tuition for more than 100 years.  But, just like freedom, a no-tuition college education isn’t really free.  Berea College must still spend a lot of money to be able to offer a high-quality educational experience for every student.  What makes it work?

Every Berea student works a campus jobs to lower the cost for everyone, while also gaining the real-world work experience that employers value.

Our donors, many of whom are alumni, step up to fund the difference.

And with all that generosity students gain access to paid internships in the summer, a fund for professional clothing, and a robust academic support system. Most importantly, there is little or nothing to repay as they start their lives after college. Forty-nine percent of Berea graduates in 2018-19 completed their degree with no debt. Those students who graduated with debt owed an average of $6,693 – far below the national average of nearly $33,000.

It seems to be working. Nationally, only 11 percent of low-income, first-generation college students graduate from college, yet up to two-thirds of the Berea College graduating class each year is first-generation.  We don’t achieve that just by giving away tuition.  We enable our students to succeed by offering the kind of support wealthier students pay for at other schools.

We believe the Berea model could be applied on a larger scale.  A tuition-free education still costs money, but it is past time to have a national conversation that acknowledges the value of a college education for many students and addresses the prohibitive costs of obtaining one. That conversation can start with the Berea model.