Free College for Poorest Students Puts Ivy League to Shame
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Berea University in rural Kentucky is one of the wealthiest colleges in America but it only accepts the poorest applicants. The dropout rate is negligible and its students go out into the world debt-free, unlike the majority of those who emerge every year from America's universities, proudly clutching a degree but burdened by massive debts.
Berea is lucky. It has a $1bn endowment which, wisely invested, produces enough income, topped up by fundraising, to teach 1,500 students. Some of Berea's students even leave with money in their pockets.
Alex Gibson graduated in philosophy this year with $17,000 to his name. Now he is off on a year-long world study tour, funded by a generous travel grant.
Although it ranks among the wealthiest colleges in the nation because of its trust fund, Berea is not one of America's elite colleges. Those are the crown jewels of the US education system and they are far wealthier than Berea.
Harvard's endowment is worth $35bn for example; Yale's $23bn; Stanford's $17bn and Princeton's $16bn -- amounts that make them among the world's richest universities. But there is a drumbeat of criticism about whether they are doing enough for the public good to deserve their tax-free status or just hoarding money for the benefit of an intellectual elite.
Harvard (annual tuition $35,000) is now racing to offer reduced tuition fees to low-income students and protect its tax-free status. But middle-class parents are so furious at the 11 per cent average annual rise in the tuition costs at run-of-the-mill colleges that it has now become an election issue.
Barack and Michelle Obama only paid off their student loans recently and he has promised to bring radical changes. One proposal is to provide free college tuition in return for a year's community service work. Mr Obama also wants a GI Bill, of the sort that gave 7.8 million veterans of the Second World War a chance to attend college. John McCain, his opponent, opposes it, saying it would deplete the ranks of the military.
As parents across the country write out their first tuition checks, the focus has turned to the issue of affordable education. And Berea's no-fee model which has been around for 158 years, is suddenly attracting attention.
The college uses its nest egg to attract students who otherwise could not afford college and draws exclusively from the bottom of the economic pile. It is extremely selective, rejecting 75 per cent of applicants as it tries to find those with the most potential. Those who apply have often endured appallingly bad secondary education and come from dysfunctional homes.
Mr Gibson is one of those and he has thrived at Berea. He earned his savings working on-campus, a requirement of this unusually public-spirited university. Every student must put in at least 10 hours a week, whether helping on the college farm, working in the admissions department or making furniture in Berea's crafts workshop.
Mr Gibson did community outreach. "It was great," he said, "we organised anti-Iraq war demonstrations."
Though not, by his own admission, a top scholar or the hardest worker, he also pulled in lots of academic scholarships.
"Every department has lots of money to give away. It's a question of applying," he said. The coup de grace was an award of $25,000 to finance his round the world trip starting in a week.
Mr Gibson, who is black, will spend his time studying biracialism, beginning in Tokyo next week. "I come from one of the poorest and most disturbed backgrounds you could imagine," he said. "All my family were involved in violence and drugs and I was brought up by a single parent and then no parents when my mother died while I was 16."
"Living in rural Appalachia, I suffered some extreme racism and it is only thanks to this college that I am now in this lucky situation."
Friends of his at other universities are not so lucky. One is paying back $37,000 after a three-year degree. Next year, Mr Gibson will attend graduate school in Pennsylvania, where he hopes to qualify as a lawyer and possibly enter politics.
For many US parents, the thrill of a letter of acceptance is soon spoiled by the arrival of the first tuition bill. For millions of working families, the pathway to the American dream runs straight through a college campus. But fees are going through the roof.
Ivy League members
Endowment: $2.8 bn
Tuition and fees per year: $36,300
Endowment: $7.15 bn
Tuition and fees: $37,200
Endowment: $5.5 bn
Tuition and fees: $34,800
Endowment: $3.76 bn
Tuition and fees: $35,300
Endowment: $35 bn
Tuition and fees: $35,000
University of Pennsylvania
Endowment: $6.78 bn
Tuition and fees: $35,900
Endowment: $15.8 bn
Tuition and fees: $34,300
Endowment: $22.5 bn
Tuition and fees: $34,500