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The Berea Bubble

College creates community, opens path to higher education

A student works in the college’s science lab. Photo: Berea College
An archival image of students crafting furniture in the woodshop. Student workers continue to make furniture today. Photo: Berea College
Photo: Berea College
An archival image of a Berea College student weaver, a craft that continues today. Photo: Berea College
Student, Frankie Baldwin, in the Hutchins Library at Berea College. Photo: Kim Kobersmith

With the soaring cost of a college degree grabbing national headlines, Berea College is writing a different story. It covers the cost of tuition so students and their families do not have to bear that expense. Its emphasis on affordability has made higher education accessible for generations of Kentucky families.

For school leaders, the tuition scholarship is an outgrowth of their mission: a high-quality education for promising students with limited means. Berea serves students in the bottom 20% of family income levels, with the average income being $29,000. The opportunity it provides makes all the difference in their ability to earn a degree. 

“I wouldn’t have had a chance anywhere else, payment-wise,” says Frankie Baldwin, a Berea College senior from Owsley County whose family is served by Jackson Energy Cooperative. “And I have been pulled into what people here call ‘the Berea Bubble,’ a very special college community.”

The rigorous course of study at Berea is on par with other small liberal arts schools. Baldwin, a Spanish major, spent a semester abroad in Salamanca, Spain, and interned at a children’s home in Ecuador one summer. 

Like half of current Berea College students, she is in the first generation of her family to go to college. Along with funding, the school fosters success with an extensive orientation process and supports like the professional clothing fund. “It provides a fashion show, a personal fitting with a stylist, and $250 to students,” Baldwin says. “It is something that others might not think about as a roadblock to getting a job, but is.”

From the start

The decision to offer free tuition is almost as old as the school itself. In 1892, then-president William G. Frost saw students were taking eight years to graduate with a four-year degree. Because of their limited means, they would attend classes until they ran out of money, then return home to earn enough for their next semester. The trustees decided to abolish tuition.

hanks to Berea’s visionary leadership, the promise is still upheld 125 years later, even with a vastly different financial landscape. Jeff Amburgey, Berea’s vice president for finance, estimates the value of the tuition-free promise at $160,000 for four years. 

The college funds tuition costs through earnings from its $1.2 billion endowment. Ninety-nine years ago, the trustees made a prescient decision to invest all undesignated bequests in the endowment. Current students are the beneficiaries of that choice to invest in the future. The fund has weathered recessions and market fluctuations, but not without some level of impact. 

“This model is fragile,” says Amburgey. “With it we are utilizing capitalism to do social good. It has allowed us to keep the mission of Berea College going.”

It is a mission that has a big impact. Typically, students in the bottom quintile of family income levels have an 11% college graduation rate. At Berea, they graduate at a 65-70% rate. 

“Berea really pushes their students,” Baldwin says. “They won’t let you get away with not doing your best.”

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