Education Opinion

Free college. Really.

By Jessica Shyu — July 21, 2008 2 min read
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I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like free stuff. In fact, I know a lot of folks who can use it. A lot of intelligent, hard-working people who don’t have any disposable income and who don’t necessarily want hand-outs, but who can use a better break in life.

Check out today’s top emailed New York Times’ article, “With No Frills or Tuition, a College Draws Notice.” As the title suggests, the school, Berea College, is free for everyone who attends. It’s supported by endowments, there are no extras like football teams or smoothie bars, and students contribute by working at least 10-hours a week on campus. Oh, and it’s free.

“Berea College, founded 150 years ago to educate freed slaves and “poor white mountaineers,” accepts only applicants from low-income families, and it charges no tuition.”

I first learned about this school a year ago from one of the teachers I supported in the Rio Grande Valley who was a Berea alum. When she explained its structure to me, my mind jumped to a dozen close friends whose lives would have taken a far different path if they had known about a school like Berea.

People like my extraordinary educational assistant “Terry,” a 43-year-old Navajo mother, educator and student. She’s been plugging away at her bachelor’s degree at the local college for eight years now. She’s has a 4.0 GPA and would love to enroll full-time to complete her last six classes. The New Mexico state tuition is relatively low, she gets a scholarship from the local Navajo chapter house, and I help pay for one class each semester. But that’s not enough for her to squeak by without working 40-hours a week. And so part-time it is. For another year or two.

If Terry was born into a family with more money, if she didn’t have to start working right after high school to help support her family, and if she had the money to quit work and finish her degree right now, the things and opportunities that she’d have access to would be so dramatically different.

Terry is my dear friend, but her situation is not exceptional. "...According to 2002 data, only one in 10 of the students at the nation’s most selective institutions come from the bottom 40 percent of the income scale. And the proportion of low-income undergraduates at the nation’s wealthiest colleges has been declining, as measured by the percentage receiving federal Pell Grants, for families with income under about $40,000. At most top colleges, only 8 to 15 percent of students receive Pell grants.”

Appalling. But not surprising when you consider the very real financial decisions that so many of our kids from low-income communities-- the ones not getting huge scholarships and grants-- have to weigh when deciding whether to pay for school or earn a paycheck to help with the utility bill.

“Berea’s approach provides an unusual perspective on the growing debate over whether the wealthiest universities are doing enough for the public good to warrant their tax exemption, or simply hoarding money to serve an elite few. As many elite universities scramble to recruit more low-income students, Berea’s no-tuition model has attracted increasing attention.”

Good. Not a hand-out, but a different model that gives more choices, and therefore life paths, to friends like Terry.

The opinions expressed in New Terrain are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.