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The Audacious Work of Berea College

The Audacious Work of Berea College

The work of Berea College was always audacious. In the mid-19th century, Berea College founder John G. Fee didn’t merely advocate for the abolition of slavery—an audacious enough stance in slaveholding Kentucky. He also proposed that a proper education could serve to erase differences in race, class and gender, promoting equity in a world dominated by an upper class that was primarily white and male. Division of labor, too, served to reinforce that viewpoint and deny equity with enslaved Africans doing most of the manual labor, while the white population regarded even the skilled trades to be beneath them. And so, a work college was born where Blacks and whites, men and women could work and study side by side. In so doing, Berea blazed a path that addressed the most vexing questions in higher education at the time: accessibility, equity, inclusion and affordability.

In the 21st century, the work of Berea College is still audacious, still blazing a path, continuing to disrupt the cycle of poverty and counter the inequities and injustices that are bound up in it.  And we are still audacious enough to think Berea College has something to offer American society, especially the world of higher education, which still today continues to struggle with issues like diversity, access, support, belonging and equity. In a document, titled “Berea College: A Model for Working and Learning in Liberal Arts Colleges of the Future,” we outline how Berea College is a model for what higher education can be. We are audacious enough to say that other institutions can look to Berea College as a thought leader in making higher education more accessible, affordable, equitable, and effective in preparing graduates for productive and meaningful lives. It continues the path that Fee and early founders embarked upon.

In the white paper, we argue that an especially important and mostly unique part of the Berea College model is the Labor Program, which not only serves the higher purpose of promoting equity but also provides students with the opportunity of a work experience that complements their studies. All students work and receive a paycheck, which addresses issues of accessibility, belonging and support while also helping students to develop the soft skills employers are looking for. Students all begin at the same level, where they develop and apply skills like attendance, accountability, teamwork, initiative, respect and the dignity of all necessary work. And they all have the opportunity to work their way up to jobs with management-level or more specialized work skills, giving our low-income student population a skillset that provides key advantages after graduation when they enter the workforce. In addition, the document highlights how, taking advantage of the diversity of Berea’s student body, the College can ensure that all students share in management and leadership positions, including those from traditionally underrepresented groups.  This prepares all students for success as they enter an increasingly diverse workforce.

This is the audacious work of equity. Our no-tuition model allows low-income students to access an education traditionally available to only their more affluent peers. Our supportive environment and efforts to promote belonging mean that our retention and graduation rates are high among a demographic that historically struggles in higher education. And our Labor Program promotes a world where, as Fee put it, “labor shall be respectable and where laborers shall have cultivated minds, so that they can go out and be efficient in all the avocations of life.”

We believe the proof of this concept is in our success over the past 168 years, and we believe, as well, that other schools can learn from Berea College. As our audacious work continues, we hope our mission of equity can inspire and challenge similar efforts at other institutions of higher learning. The document can be accessed at the Berea College website at