The New York Times ran a piece Monday on Berea college, which, judging from the article’s comment section and blog responses, appears to have hit a raw nerve. At a point when Congress is about to publish a list of the worst tuition-increase offenders, and yearly college price-tags are climbing nearer $50,000 a year, it’s little wonder that a story on a free college serving low-income students might be welcome, or even shocking.
The piece grounds the discussion of Berea in the larger onoing wrangling over the bulging coffers of our nation’s richest colleges. Berea’s endowment, while large, pales in comparison to the nation’s top colleges. It offers free tuition; the wealthy colleges don’t. Anthony Marx, the President of Amherst college, interviewed in the Times piece, declared that he considered the Berea approach, but dismissed it, given that most of Amherst’s students are affluent and that those who aren’t already enjoy considerable financial aid. A poor argument? Well, perhaps.
To compare Berea to Amherst, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Princeton, as the Times piece immediately does, makes them look both profligate and stingy, both facts that are, in part, certainly true. It’s difficult to find a college that balances thrift and altruism so deftly as Berea. While informative, this comparison doesn’t ultimately seem the most useful. Marx is basically correct about Amherst, and comparable colleges; they draw mainly upon the clientele least pained by their ticket prices, and also tend to aid the less affluent handsomely. When serving this top-level market, amenities and resource races (and to a lesser extent, attendant tuition increases) make a certain sense.
The really instructive comparison to draw with Berea is to the countless less-than-fabulously wealthy American colleges who are nonetheless caught up in endless cycles of expansion, refurbishment, and tuition increases. Harvard’s stockpiled billions are of course out of all proportion to what they charge, but the practical villains for American students are the average colleges that aren’t squirreling money away, but spending in endless races to catch up or buy their way to success, and steadily passing the costs to middle-income students and parents ill-prepared to pay. As one commentator on the Times article stated “the thing about college is you can only afford to go if you’re rich or poor.” It’s the majority of American students who are caught in a maelstrom of collegiate costs a too many colleges try to imitate Amherst and too few Berea. As Berea’s President asked in the article: “You see some of these selective liberal arts colleges building new physical education facilities with these huge sheets of glass and these coffee and juice bars, and charging students $40,000 a year, and you have to ask, does this contribute to the public good, or is it just a way for the college to keep up with the Joneses?” It’s a proven formula for little more than staggering student loan debt.
Obviously, not all can directly follow Berea’s example. Not all colleges can be free. Yet how many colleges actually seek to focus only on academic fundamentals, and vigorously seek to keep tuition low otherwise? As Peter Wood wrote here, wouldn’t the existence of this sort of “Plan B” at a “prorated discount” prove attractive? Or isn’t it at least odd that such options aren’t more broadly available in the largest higher education market in the world? It may not attract the potential Amherst student or parent, but there are thousands of other soon-to-be-financially beleaguered students and parents for whom this would offer a fantastic alternative.
Undoubtedly it would take work to make this formula function, but how much more than the countless colleges trying to buy their way up the U.S. News list with new dorms and facilities? You can do this differently:
Berea has no football team, coed dorms, hot tubs or climbing walls. Instead, it has a no-frills budget, with food from the college farm, handmade furniture from the college crafts workshops, and 10-hour-a-week campus jobs for every student.
It probably doesn’t have a dozen diversity deans either. Berea offers a superb example. The Times has taken notice. When will other American colleges?