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How Tuition-Free College Works at Berea and ALC

A tuition-free college education isn’t easy to find in the U.S., but if free is all you can afford, look no further than Sullivan Foundation partner schools Berea College and Alice Lloyd College.

These tuition-free colleges, both located in Kentucky, were featured in a recent article on NPR.com. The article explains how their tuition-free work-college models came into existence and how they’ve managed to thrive even as other higher-education institutions have struggled to keep tuition costs under control.

Related: Sullivan Foundation offers college study-abroad opportunity in Scotland for Summer 2020

Berea College was founded by a Presbyterian minister/abolitionist in 1855 as the first racially integrated and coeducational college in the American South. Berea went tuition-free in 1892 because so many students couldn’t afford to pay. In 1920, as NPR reports, its board of trustees created an endowment that has since ballooned to $1.2 billion. The profits from its investments help to educate low-income students, mostly from Appalachia, for free. That means students can graduate with little or no debt while getting a high-quality college education.

NPR notes that it can take decades, even up to 75 years, for an endowment like Berea’s to be able to fully fund a tuition-free college education. When Alice Lloyd founded the institution that bears her name in the early 1900s, she took a different route. For her students, free college actually meant hard work from the start, as they and their families provided the labor to build and staff the campus. Today, Alice Lloyd College boasts about 600 students, mostly from low-income Appalachian families, and 85 percent of the alumni return to live and work in Appalachia.

this photo shows a group of low-income students at one of the country's few tuition-free colleges.

Students enjoy the activities of Giving Day and Opening Convocation at Berea College, one of the country’s few tuition-free colleges.

TaLaura Mathis, who is working on her degree in biology at ALC and then plans to study dentistry, wants to do exactly that. “Where I come from, it’s very poverty-stricken,” Mathis told NPR. “I really want to help blue-collar, hard-working people that just can’t afford dentistry.”

To keep tuition free for students from Alice Lloyd College’s 108-county service area, ALC has “a decent endowment” of around $44 million, NPR reports. ALC also does a lot of fundraising to make sure new buildings are fully funded before construction even begins. Meanwhile, professors teach heavier class loads than they would at other schools and don’t receive tenure.

this photo depicts a graduate of Alice Lloyd College, a prominent tuition-free college in Kentucky

ALC student TaLaura Mathis

As work colleges, Berea and ALC both require students to work at least 10 hours a week. The Atlantic has described Berea’s labor requirements as “work-study on steroids,” with students handling everything from janitorial services to website production and managing volunteer programs. As of the Atlantic’s October 2018 article, 45% of Berea graduates had no debt, while others had an average of less than $7,000 in debt.

ALC’s website states that “no student has ever been turned away from Alice Lloyd College due to an inability to pay.” It adds that ALC “is consistently listed among the nation’s leaders in graduating students with the least amount of average debt.”

Can other schools learn from Berea College and Alice Lloyd College? It depends. NPR suggests the work college model is “best suited for smaller institutions” since it’s not always feasible to create mandatory jobs for students at schools with relatively high enrollments. However, larger schools that want to lower tuition or offer a tuition-free or reduced-tuition education “could try a hybrid of the work-college model,” with smaller working programs offered along with other forms of financial aid.

Berea College, Alice Lloyd College Recognized as Tuition-Free Work Colleges

Two Sullivan Foundation partner schools—Berea College and Alice Lloyd College—were recognized recently by USA Today and Fox Business for their efforts to help students work their way to a degree instead of paying high tuition.

USA Today singled out Berea and ALC as two of the country’s nine official four-year “work colleges,” where students must work as part of their learning experience. Berea and ALC are two of only three such schools that offer free tuition.

For the story, USA Today interviewed Collis Robinson, who cleaned restrooms and set up events at Berea College before becoming comptroller and, later, director of the school’s campus activities board. “I led 22 people and had a $70,000 budget to manage,” Robinson, now Berea’s director of student labor, told USA Today. “I got to gain a lot of transferable skills.”

Students from ALC’s 108-county service are guaranteed that the full cost of their tuition will be covered. They have to work a minimum of 10 hours a week on campus, serving as janitors, resident advisors, teacher assistants, postal workers and other positions.

Students at Berea College have to work at on-campus departments 10-20 hours a week. They typically earn $2,000 for the academic year, USA Today reports.

Free tuition doesn’t necessarily mean a free education, of course. Depending on the school, other expenses, such as room, board, books and supplies might have to be covered by the student in other ways, whether out-of-pocket or through scholarships, loans or Pell Grants. Still, working for your degree is a big money-saver, as USA Today notes: “The average undergraduate annual tuition and fees across all undergraduate institutions is $12,600, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. Students at private nonprofit schools pay the most: $33,800 annually on average.”