As a ‘Working College,’ Berea College Provides High-Quality Education to Low-Income Students at No Cost

Guest post by Matt Walker, credit strategist and contributing editor to badcredit.org

Student loan debt in the United States is no joke. The total amount of debt has tripled since 2005 with college graduates and former students owing a jaw-dropping $1.6 trillion. Student loan debt is only surpassed by mortgage debt in the U.S.

The debt burden today’s college grads are carrying is actually changing the way millennials live their lives when compared to previous generations. Some have delayed marriage, put off buying a home, and even foregone having children due to their student loan burdens.

The student loan crisis recently gained a bit more attention on the national stage as COVID-19 has spread across the country. Social distancing and shelter-at-home orders have left millions out of work. Thankfully, Congress was able to quickly come together to pass the CARES Act, which halted student loan payments for six months and also paused collections on overdue student loan payments.

But after the COVID-19 crisis ends, the student loan debt crisis will remain.

What if students didn’t have to pay tuition to receive a high-quality college education? What if they went out into the world after four years debt-free and ready to contribute to society?

That’s what’s happening at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky. The private college uses its endowment to accept academically promising, low-income students who likely would not have any other way to pursue higher education. And as part of their tuition-free education, students work 10 hours or more per week for the college in some capacity.

As the college itself puts it, it’s the best education money can’t buy.

We recently spoke with Berea College’s President Dr. Lyle Roelofs about the institution’s history and differentiating approach to higher education.

An Institution Founded on Progressive Ideals in the Pre-Civil War Era

“The college actually goes back to just before the Civil War,” Roelofs said. “It was founded by an abolitionist. Early on, it wasn’t completely free but it was always interracial and co-educational from the start.”

Berea College was the vision of Rev. John G. Fee, who started the institution as a one-room school in the central Kentucky town in 1855.

Berea was the first interracial and co-educational college to be founded in the South.“Fee, a native of Bracken County, Ky., was a scholar of strong moral character, dedication, determination, and great faith,” according to the college website. “He believed in a school that would be an advocate of equality and excellence in education for men and women of all races.”

Like so many businesses and institutions in the south, the college shuttered its doors during the Civil War but reopened as a bigger and better institution shortly after the war ended. The college made its next big step toward the model it operates on today with the tenure of its third president, who made some big changes.

“One was to eliminate tuition and another was to provide on-campus jobs for every student,” Roelofs said. “The idea was that those two things would enable students — instead of going away, working for a semester, coming back, then going away, and coming back — they might be able just to go right through and get their degree.”

To replace the cost of tuition, the college began a fundraising campaign aimed at wealthy people, mostly in the Northeast, who were willing to support schools in the South during the Reconstruction Era, Roelofs said.

“That was successful. (The president) promoted our service to Appalachia,” Roelofs said. “The idea was, as he put it, ‘to educate those undiscovered Abraham Lincolns that are still in the mountains and would otherwise not have access because they just don’t have any money.”

In the 1920s, the college established an endowment to move away from a model of only fundraising.

These early visionary and progressive efforts laid the foundation for the successful institution that Berea College is today.

How the Working College Model Functions and Allows Students to Attend Tuition-Free

Roelofs said Berea College’s endowment has now grown to a point that on a per-student basis it is comparable to some of the most highly ranked colleges in the country, and so is able to support a very high-quality educational experience.

“Until the recent downturn, it was about $750,000 per student,” he said. “That spins off about $35,000 to $40,000 per student per year. And that’s the foundation for the business model. We also raise another $4 million from donors annually. And we get a lot of Pell support because we don’t take students unless they have high need.”

Besides accepting no tuition, one of Berea College’s other main distinctions is that it is one of only nine federally recognized Working Colleges in the U.S.Roelofs explained that if a student can afford to pay any tuition at all, his or her application will not be accepted at Berea College. The mean family income of the college’s first-year students is less than $30,000 per year.

At Berea, every student works 10 to 15 hours per week while carrying a full academic load. The students are able to choose work options in more than 100 college and off-campus programs.

“Students gain valuable workplace experience, earn money for books, food and other expenses, and their appreciation for the dignity and utility of labor is enhanced,” according to the Berea College website.

And there is plenty of work to go around.

“The students are such good workers that every department around here wants more students,” Roelofs said. “The jobs are there — we’re always short on students to fill every job.”

The big upside for Berea College students is that they can graduate from college debt-free, unlike students from so many other institutions in the U.S.

Roelofs said that about one-third of Berea College students don’t incur any debt at all. Other students may incur small debts if they want to study abroad for a semester or perhaps they have family members they help care for.

But for those two-thirds, the average debt upon graduation is a meager $6,700. Not bad, considering the average college graduate in 2017 left school with an average debt of $28,650.

An Academic Curriculum That Sets Students Up to Succeed and Share Their Success

Although Berea College’s business model as a Working College is much different than most higher education institutions, it still offers a high-caliber education in an array of degree programs.

Students can earn a Bachelor of Arts or Science degree in one of 32 different majors or choose alternative options such as student-designed majors or a dual-degree engineering program. Berea also houses 16 national and international honor societies.

“Berea’s educational experience provides students the knowledge and skills to successfully navigate the world,” according to the college website. “Berea provides a stimulating and challenging environment. Whether in the classroom, attending a Convocation, interning, studying abroad or linking labor with academic goals, the educational experience is truly like no other.”

Roelofs praised the students’ work ethic, saying they don’t take their education opportunity for granted. About 70% of Berea College students are from the Appalachian region, but overall, there are 1,600 undergraduate students representing nearly every U.S. state and more than 60 countries. And 1 out of 3 students is a person of color, according to the college.

“Berea students are much more aware that this is probably their best and only chance to get a college degree,” he said. “It’s not like, ‘If this doesn’t work out for me, Mom and Dad will let me transfer to another school, and they’ll continue to pay tuition.’ If you don’t make it at Berea, you probably don’t have other good options. Maybe you go into the military or to a community college and see how that goes.”

Additionally, the student body is less cynical than it may be at other schools, Roelofs said.

And with Berea College graduates entering the workforce with little to no debt, they are free to make positive impacts on society and help their families in ways that may not have otherwise been possible.

“When you change the economic trajectory of a student’s life you actually change many trajectories,” Roelofs said. “That student will go on to have a family, and that family will be in completely different circumstances than they otherwise would have.”

This also means the student can help his or her other family members, such as parents, brothers, sisters, and cousins as well.

“So the impact of changing one life is really much, much broader than that one life,” he said.

Berea College has seen its graduates go on to an array of successful careers. One graduate won the Nobel Prize, Roelofs said, while another went on to become a doctor who founded the Cancer Center at Vanderbilt University.

While Berea College’s business model may not be realistic for every higher education institution, maybe it can serve as an inspiration for leaders and decision-makers to seek alternatives to the current system that has resulted in student debt problems for so many.

NPR Features Berea College’s No Tuition Policy and Labor Program

Draper Building

Berea College was the focus of a feature story by Jeff Tyler recently broadcast by National Public Radio. Tyler, a journalist for NPR’s Marketplace and All Things Considered, recently visited Berea’s campus to prepare the story that focused on how Berea College and Alice Lloyd College provide no-tuition enrollment for college students and offer examples other American colleges might follow.

Continue reading NPR Features Berea College’s No Tuition Policy and Labor Program

CNN Features Berea as Counterpoint to American Admissions Scandals

Amid media coverage of the FBI’s “Varsity Blues” college scam cases, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria contrasted how Berea College offers “a high-quality education to economically-disadvantaged students in pursuit of their American dreams.”

A special CNN documentary that aired Sunday, October 20, examined how the college admissions process in America became so broken. Titled SCHEME and SCANDAL: Inside the College Admissions Crisis, the documentary investigated how some students and their high-profile celebrity parents have turned to criminal rigging of their applications in pursuit of entrance to the most in-demand colleges. The hour-long program also reported on lesser-known cases of cheating that did not make the headlines: paying bribes to coaches, admissions officers, and other school officials, hiring standardized test takers, obtaining false diagnoses to secure more time for testing, and more.

In contrast, Berea College was highlighted as an alternate model for access and affordability to quality higher education, especially for those who can least afford it. Students were interviewed and spoke about the opportunities Berea provides that they and their families could not otherwise afford. The program featured Berea’s distinctive no-tuition model and how the College’s endowment and contributions from alumni and other donors provides the capital to invest in lives of great promise.

The program will be rebroadcast on November 2, 2019. Check local listings for times in your area.

Berea College Ranked No. 1 “Best Value College” by The Wall Street Journal/THE

A Berea College student reading the Wall Street Journal's article ranking Berea College Number 1Berea College tops the list of “Best Value Colleges” in the nation in The Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education (THE) 2020 College Rankings. Looking at the top 250 schools overall, the rankings calculated which schools provide the best value by dividing each school’s overall score by its average net price according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. The average net price is the total cost of attending a school—including tuition, fees, room and board, books and supplies, and other costs—minus federal or institutional financial aid that doesn’t have to be repaid. Students who don’t receive any aid aren’t included in the calculation.

Berea’s no-tuition model contributed to its No. 1 best-value ranking. The College ranked No. 155 overall.

“We are thrilled to be ranked at the top of this impressive list of colleges and universities and are proud to be leading a cohort of schools that are committed to the important American ideal of social mobility through educational opportunity,” said Berea College President Lyle Roelofs. “Our no-tuition policy allows us to provide talented students who might not otherwise be able to afford access to a high-quality liberal arts education and transformative experiences and enables them to graduate with little or no debt.”

Following Berea on the list are three schools in the City University of New York (CUNY) system: CUNY City College of New York, CUNY Bernard M. Baruch College and CUNY Hunter College. The University of Washington-Seattle rounds out the top five.

Eight of the top 10 best-value colleges in this year’s Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education College Rankings are public schools whose financial resources are constrained by government budgets.

Read the Wall Street Journal article (pdf) and watch this segment from Spectrum News 1 about our ranking.

Washington Monthly Ranks Berea No. 1 as Best Bang for the Buck and No. 4 Best Liberal Arts College

2019 Washington Monthly College Rankings magazine coverWashington Monthly ranked Berea College No. 1 as the Best Bang for the Buck Colleges in the South. No other college in Kentucky was in the top 25. Berea also was named the nation’s No. 4 top liberal arts college in the 2019 Washington Monthly College Rankings guide. The recognition for Berea comes from its success in educating and graduating academically talented, low-income students who become service-oriented leaders in their professions and communities.

In announcing the rankings, Washington Monthly author Robert Kelchen noted that there is “growing public attention paid to colleges’ roles in fostering upward social mobility among their students. This is our eighth year of producing a ranking of ‘best bang for the buck’ colleges, which is laser focused on showing which colleges do a good job promoting social mobility—and which don’t.”

Kelchen noted that Berea held the top spot again this year due to the College’s “economic diversity, relatively strong graduation rates and commitment to meeting students’ financial need.”

Washington Monthly’s rankings focus on what colleges are doing for the good of the country at large by the way they educate their students. The publication measures schools’ success in three key areas—social mobility (admitting and graduating low-income students), research and Ph.D. production and community service—to determine the rankings.

“We find such recognition for Berea’s success in serving students who might otherwise not be able to attend college most gratifying, especially since the criteria for Washington Monthly rankings aligns with Berea’s mission,” said Berea College President Lyle Roelofs. “The economic data and peer surveys that other publications use for their rankings typically favor wealthy, elite colleges. By contrast the Washington Monthly criteria recognizes the value of social mobility, transformative education and service, which are consistent with our ‘Great Commitments’ that inform Berea’s work and inspire support from donors.”

Berea’s distinctive mission is serving low-income students. Between 80 and 90 percent of Berea students receive federal Pell grants and annual household of students’ families is about $29,000. The national graduation rates for that demographic averages only in the mid-teens. By contrast, about two-thirds of Berea’s students graduate on time and a healthy number go on to earn doctoral and other advanced degrees.

The Washington Monthly College Rankings and guide appear online here.

Berea Named One of the Best 385 Colleges in the Princeton Review’s 2020 Guide

Graduates celebrating in Seabury Center

(Photo: Crystal Wylie ’05)

Princeton Review 2020 CoverThe Princeton Review has once again included Berea College in its just-released publication of The Best 385 Colleges: 2020 Edition.

Berea is nationally recognized for its high-quality education and its distinctive labor program, which hires every admitted student to help operate the school. Berea is also known for its Tuition Promise Scholarship that covers the $44,100 annual tuition cost for every student. That is particularly meaningful for Berea’s students since most come from families making an average of $29,000 and are the first in their families to attend college.

The Princeton Review’s list of best colleges is based on input from students at America’s schools on a survey that asked students 84 questions about their school’s academics, administration, campus community and themselves. The answer format uses a five-point Likert scale to convert qualitative student assessments into quantitative data for school-to-school comparisons. The company does not rank the 385 schools in the book hierarchically, from 1 to 385 in any category. Instead The Princeton Review surveyed 140,000 students at 385 of the nation’s top colleges to rate their schools on dozens of topics important to applicants and their parents.

“Berea’s continued recognition among America’s top schools is gratifying,” said Lyle D. Roelofs, president of Berea College. “Berea’s no-tuition model is especially important to our students whose families seek the kind of high-quality liberal arts education Berea College offers, but cannot afford to pay tuition. The national attention on Berea from organizations such as The Princeton Review helps families connect with a school that will meet their needs. This recognition also puts a spotlight on Berea’s many alumni and friends whose contributions replace tuition so that our student’s outcomes are not limited by their financial situations.” 

“The 385 colleges for this edition were chosen as ‘best’ overall, academically, based on data gathered in 2018–19 from more than a thousand school administrators about their schools’ academic programs and offerings,” said Robert Franek, The Princeton Review’s editor-in-chief and lead author of the book.

Nerdwallet Spotlights Berea’s Student Work Program

Student carrying a plant at the Ecovillage

Nerdwallet, a personal financial services blogsite that provides information on banking, credit cards, college loans, mortgage loans, insurance, and stock trading, highlighted Berea College in a recent article. The feature focused on Berea’s Student Labor Program and two other schools that are members of the Work Colleges Consortium that also require students to work.

Continue reading Nerdwallet Spotlights Berea’s Student Work Program

Berea Named a “Best Value” College by the Princeton Review

Student forming a clay mugBerea College, widely known for its no-tuition policy, is one of the nation’s best colleges for students seeking a superb education with great career preparation at an affordable price, according to The Princeton Review®.

The newly-published 2019 edition of The Princeton Review’s annual guide, The Best Value Colleges: 200 Schools with Exceptional ROI for Your Tuition Investment, recommends colleges considered the nation’s best for academics, affordability and career prospects. The distinction is based on a ROI (return on investment) rating score developed by The Princeton Review that weights more than 40 data points, including data from previous years’ surveys of students and administrators at more than 650 U.S. colleges. Other factors include starting and mid-career salaries and career social impact. Continue reading Berea Named a “Best Value” College by the Princeton Review

Berea College Noted for Easing Student Financial Burden

A Berea graduate raising her arms in celebration with her diploma in hand

(Photo: Desiree Dunn ’21)

A recent article published by U. S. News & World Report included Berea among selective colleges where students are eager to apply, be accepted and attend. The story named highly competitive colleges that are considered “high yield,” which refers to the percentage of accepted students who choose to enroll. The article specifically cited Berea College and the United States Naval Academy for high yields and no tuition, stating “Two liberal arts colleges with high yield figures – the Naval Academy and Berea College in Kentucky – provide a tuition-free education, easing the financial burden on students and their families as the cost of school continues to rise across the nation.” Read the full article here.

Berea College Featured on “CBS This Morning: Saturday”

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“CBS This Morning: Saturday” featured Berea College in a broadcast about the rising cost of attending college on Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019. The show highlighted Berea’s unique no-tuition policy as a model to curb that national trend. Continue reading Berea College Featured on “CBS This Morning: Saturday”

Berea’s Feature in The Atlantic Cited by the National College Access Network

Berea College was cited in a newly published article by Lindsay Broderick, a staff writer for the National College Access Network (NCAN), who called attention to the extensive feature about Berea in a recent issue of The Atlantic.

The National College Access Network is composed of member organizations across the U.S. that, like Berea, are committed to providing college access and success to students, especially for those who often are underrepresented in postsecondary education. Berea’s Partners for Education program is a NCAN member. Continue reading Berea’s Feature in The Atlantic Cited by the National College Access Network

Berea Featured in The Atlantic

Berea’s distinctive educational model has once again attracted national attention. The Atlantic published a feature on the College following a recent visit to campus by education writer Adam Harris. The article details Berea’s remarkable history and how its mission is carried out today. Harris also asks if Berea’s no-tuition model, or at least key aspects of it, could be replicated at other schools across America to address the need for affordable, high-quality education. Read the full article at The Atlantic here.

Washington Monthly Again Ranks Berea No. 1, Twice; As Best National Liberal Arts College and Best Bang for the Buck in the South

Washington Monthly once again ranked Berea College No. 1, in two major classifications, citing Berea as the nation’s top liberal arts college and ranking Berea as the Best Bang for the Buck College in the South. Berea’s top rank in the 2018 Washington Monthly College Guide and Rankings comes from its success in educating and graduating academically-talented students who have great financial need to become service-oriented leaders in their professions and communities. Continue reading Washington Monthly Again Ranks Berea No. 1, Twice; As Best National Liberal Arts College and Best Bang for the Buck in the South

Berea College Highlighted for Low Student Debt, Nationally and Locally

Berea College captured the national spotlight again for helping students graduate with little or no debt. In a newly-released report focused on student-loan debt for each state, Kentucky’s Berea College was ranked No. 1 among private colleges and universities in the state and fourth among private schools nationwide. Continue reading Berea College Highlighted for Low Student Debt, Nationally and Locally

Berea Named a “Best Bang for Your Tuition Buck” College by the Princeton Review

We Made the List! - Colleges that Pay You Back 2018Berea College, widely known for its no-tuition policy, is named in the newly released edition of The Princeton Review’s book, Colleges That Pay You Back: The 200 Schools That Give You the Best Bang for Your Tuition Buck. Only 7 percent of the nation’s four-year colleges earn inclusion in this publication.

In addition to being named as a College That Pay You Back—based on academic rigor, affordability and career outcomes for graduates—the book also cites Berea College in the following categories:

  • Tuition-Free Schools (One of just nine)
  • Green Colleges
  • Best Southeastern (Schools considered academically outstanding)

Continue reading Berea Named a “Best Bang for Your Tuition Buck” College by the Princeton Review

Berea Takes No. 1 Spot for Least Graduate Debt in Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Ranking, Named a “Best College Value” Institution

Berea graduates at midyear commencement 2017Long known for providing access to high-quality, low-cost education, Berea College has again been named as the No. 1 College with Lowest Average Graduating Debt by Kiplinger.

Berea also ranked in the top 50 of Liberal Arts Colleges (#49) in the U.S. and in the top 100 of all colleges and universities (#95) in Kiplinger’s Personal Finance’s list of the 300 Best College Values for 2018. Continue reading Berea Takes No. 1 Spot for Least Graduate Debt in Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Ranking, Named a “Best College Value” Institution

CNBC Applauds Berea College for No Tuition and Least Debt for Students

CNBC logoOnce again Berea College’s distinctive model of not charging students for tuition has gained national attention. Americans have more student debt than ever before, but CNBC, a national media network for consumer news and business, recently published two articles by Abigail Hess citing Berea for its affordability and its top spot for students with the lowest average amount of debt. Continue reading CNBC Applauds Berea College for No Tuition and Least Debt for Students

Washington Monthly Ranks Berea No. 1 Twice; As Best National Liberal Arts College and Best Bang for the Buck

Student with Washington Monthly 2017
Washington Monthly has once again ranked Berea College #1 in two major classifications, citing Berea as the nation’s top liberal arts college and ranking Berea as the Best Bang for the Buck Colleges in the South. Berea’s top rank in the 2017 Washington Monthly College Rankings Guide comes from its success in educating and graduating academically talented, low-income students who become service-oriented leaders in their professions and communities. Continue reading Washington Monthly Ranks Berea No. 1 Twice; As Best National Liberal Arts College and Best Bang for the Buck

Forbes Names Berea as a “Standout” for Low Debt

Rising student debt continues to alarm many families. The amount of debt American colleges take on—while making fewer headlines—also is of extreme concern. Forbes, in its latest list titled “2017 College Financial Grades: How Fit Is Your School?” gives kudos to Berea College for keeping institutional debt low and scores Berea with an “A” grade.

In a newly-published article, Matt Schifrin, a Forbes staff writer, focuses on factors that indicate the financial fitness of schools: endowment assets per student; primary reserve ratio; viability ratio; return on assets; and instruction expenses per student. Continue reading Forbes Names Berea as a “Standout” for Low Debt

Berea featured as one of the best colleges in the Princeton Review’s 2018 guide

Berea College is one of the nation’s best colleges for students seeking a superb education with great career preparation and at an affordable price according to The Princeton Review. The education services company lists Berea College as one of the nation’s best institutions for undergraduate education in the new 2018 edition of its college guide, “The Best 382 Colleges.” (Penguin Random House / Princeton Review,$24.99, August 1, 2017)  Continue reading Berea featured as one of the best colleges in the Princeton Review’s 2018 guide

MONEY Ranks Berea College #1 in Affordability

MONEY Magazine lists Berea College as the country’s most affordable liberal arts college. The No. 1 ranking puts Berea at the top of 50 high-quality private schools that scored well for affordability. The schools on MONEY’s list are judged as providing a great education at an affordable price that helps students launch promising careers. Continue reading MONEY Ranks Berea College #1 in Affordability

President Lyle Roelofs Weighs in on Student Loan Debt Burden in Facebook Live Q&A


Berea College President Lyle Roelofs spoke today on Facebook Live, discussing Berea’s unique mission and responding to recent news regarding growing student loan debt. “Education is the most important route for the transformation of lives,” President Roelofs said, pointing out that for many across the nation, attaining an education saddles individuals with mountains of debt. In his remarks, he describes some of the issues students and families currently face, what some of the proposed cuts in the federal budget might mean to low-income families, and how Berea College continues to provide an option for obtaining a high-quality college education for those who otherwise could not afford one.

Berea Named a 2017 “Best College Value” by Kiplinger’s Personal Finance

-Recognized for Embodying Exceptional Academic Quality and Affordability-

Long known for providing access to high-quality, low-cost education, Berea College has been named to Kiplinger’s Personal Finance’s list of the Top 300 Best College Values of 2017. Continue reading Berea Named a 2017 “Best College Value” by Kiplinger’s Personal Finance