A different way to work through college

September 26, 1997

NICK Vaughn is the first to admit he is not particularly adept with his hands, so learning how to make brooms was one of the hardest things he has had to do in college.

But Mr Vaughn, a senior at Berea College in Kentucky, is not complaining. The profits from the factory where he worked go directly to the college, helping it provide his schooling at no cost.

Berea is the only private college in the United States that charges no tuition fees, supporting itself with income from an unusually large endowment and by running a hotel, a laundry and other businesses where the mostly low-income students are required to work in exchange for their education.

"Some of the students might try to persuade you that they are experiencing a hardship, but I don't think they are," said Mr Vaughn, who plans to go to law school. "I think most of them believe Berea has given them a generous gift."

Established by abolitionists in 1855, Berea was the south's first racially integrated college. It charged modest tuition fees until 1892 and subsequently built up an endowment worth $500 million.

Income from investments covers most of the school's expenses, allowing it to admit about 1,500 mostly low-income students at no financial cost to them. Qualified students not in financial need are turned away.

All students are required to work ten to 15 hours a week, as well as their classwork and extracurricular activities, to help defray the college's expenditure. Most start off as custodians, dishwashers and labourers - experiences meant to serve as part of their education, Berea's president, Larry Shinn, said.

"We want them to consider how you tackle poverty and inequity, and the way you get at that is not simply by educating people in the classics," said Dr Shinn, who previously worked at the expensive Oberlin and Bucknell private colleges.

"It's by putting them in positions where they are asked to work alongside of, and provide service to, people different from themselves."

Students are encouraged to pursue careers in public service. Berea's graduates include Juanita Kreps, a former US commerce secretary. Nine alumni have served as presidents of other colleges.

"Berea tells its students: 'We have enabled you to gain an education of the highest calibre'," Dr Shinn said. "'We want you to go back to your community and serve'."

The college runs the Boone Tavern Hotel, where students majoring in hotel management work. Five crafts programmes produce fine furniture, wooden puzzles, brooms, marble games and wrought iron decorations, providing jobs for 100 to 200 students a year.

"They have a whole different sense about what they're doing here," Dr Shinn said. "It's a self-defining part of their experience."

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