Berea College (visited 9/25/19)
“I flourished in ways that high-school me never could imagine. I felt like my voice mattered and that I belonged.” Berea is changing lives.
An admissions rep opened the counselor session by saying, “Let me tell you about the best kept secret in Kentucky. Lots of schools say they’re unique, but we walk the walk.” Berea targets students with the academic ability but not the financial resources for a college education. This is a 4-year liberal arts college with 1600 students, traditionally serving Appalachia (students from the region, stretching from Georgia to NY, represent just under 70% of the student body) but will serve any qualified student, including about 30 international students per year.
No student pays tuition. “Financial Aid is different than most places. We have certain requirements that need to meet to be eligible for admission,” said a rep. As long as students’ EFCs make them eligible for a Pell Grant, they can be considered for admission. “If they don’t meet this, it’s a simple no and we’ll communicate that to the family.” There are few exceptions, including faculty children or those eligible for tuition exchanges at other institutions. Also, if students are eligible when they enter and later are no longer Pell Eligible, they are still a Berea student. They won’t have to leave, but they will have to pay more towards their education.
Berea’s No-Tuition promise is valued at more than $176,000 over 4 years. Students are asked to contribute towards housing and meals costs. On average, this comes out to about $600 per semester based on their EFC. Books and personal expenses can be covered through earnings in the labor (what they call Work-Study). “My family doesn’t have to get another job to support me, and I was given a job on campus, too. If I go to grad school, I won’t be carrying any loans. Berea is giving me opportunities now and after graduation that I wouldn’t have at another institution.” In 2018, 45% graduated with no debt. Loans are usually only taken out when they can’t come up with the EFC. “Those who incur debt have less than $6700.”
Students fill sixty percent of campus positions in 120 departments through the labor program, that allows them to earn up to $2000 as freshmen; that rises as they get promoted. “It can teach you about what you do want – but also a lot about what you don’t!” First year students can’t choose their jobs but can submit a resume and preferences which influences where they’re placed. The goal is ultimately to find students work aligned with job aspirations or majors (allowing for a solid resume): accounting majors can work in the business office, for example.
The College President uses the idea of bridging students through the college experience. It’s not enough to just get them into college. “There are multiple ways to set them up for success in the first year.”
- “We don’t take anything for granted. There are lots of first-gen students here, and many don’t have other support. We put initial support in place before they arrive.” This includes:
- Pre-Arrival Communication: “we lay the map out clearly before they arrive.”
- Orientation Programs: online, summer connections, and a welcome week.
- They have a Coordinator of First-Year Programming/Family Engagement and a Family Outreach Coordinator.
- Several teams implement first-year interventions as needed: intervention response team (talking about things that might jeopardize academic status), students of concern team (more behavioral disturbance), and academic progress. They make plans of action to see how can they help the student.
- Academic Transition: this provides supplemental advising and programming. First year students are placed in classes in the fall, so they provide a program to teach them how to navigate registration in the spring. In the online orientation, they fill out a course-preference module that is unique to them based on their major and interests.
There are multiple first-year high-touch, structural, intentional initiatives. Almost 75% of students participate in one of these (up from 18% in 2012). They want students to make meaningful connections. TAs are integrated into the programs. Someone is aware of the students’ presence, making sure they are known and their needs are met.
- Berea Bridge is a summer program for 60 students on a lottery system (based on interest) to represent the bigger demographic. They enroll in 2 classes, work 6 hours a week in the labor program, participate in activities and team-building, and check in regularly with TAs and other staff. Transportation is paid for. “Some students cry because it’s so hard – but they usually come back and say their first semester is much easier. Retention of those students is over 90% to sophomore year and with higher GPAs.”
- Emerging Scholars Program does a pre-arrival orientation (transportation costs are covered) for 70 students. Students check in regularly with an Academic Coach, enroll in GST 101, complete activities and team-building outings. This targets students from distressed counties or inner cities but can accept anyone who is low-income and first-gen.
- GST 101 (Strategies for Academic Success) The 200 students who opt to enroll receive hands-on support in navigating Berea, connecting with classmates who share the same transition experience, develop skills and strategies that support student success.
- Male Retention Initiatives: Because males were persisting through college at lower rates, they created groups for African-Americans, Latinos, and those coming from distressed Appalachian counties. They take courses and seminars to help with transition, talk about identity, cultural understanding, masculinity; complete regular team-building and trips.
- Summer Success Experience: 18 students who are at risk of being suspended during their first year are granted another opportunity. The program is a 7-week intensive, supportive, and structured program. Students take 2 classes, attend mandatory study Sun-Thurs, have regular check-ins with staff, and do extracurricular and team-building activities.
The earlier students apply, the better. They start making rolling decisions in November: about half the acceptances are out the door by Winter Break and almost all by early March. “If you wait until the final deadline, the chances of getting in are diminished significantly because the space just isn’t there.” New students only enter in the fall; there’s no spring transfer entry point. They bring in about 50 true transfer students every year, and they welcome transfer credit (including APs). “We’ll do what we can to make it work.” Students must submit the FAFSA as part of their application by 10/31 (priority) or 3/31 (final). They will always look at personal circumstances and use professional discretion if circumstances have changed.
Accepted students show a great deal of academic promise: generally, admitted students have a 3.5+ GPA, ACT/SAT of 23/1150+, and are in the top 20%. Averages for the most recent incoming class was 3.6 GPA and 25 ACT. Applicants should demonstrate that they are persistent and self-motivated, have grit, are service-minded, and fit with the labor program. This year, they secured some funds for some travel reimbursement for students to visit Berea; applicants can also stay on campus if traveling from a distance. One student toured campus with TRIO students. “It’s been an amazing journey to see different beliefs and cultures coming together. I was a bit concerned after working in dining services my first year. Now I work in first-year initiatives office. They were the best support. I thought dropping out was the only option my first year, but they got me through.”
Campus is active; the want students engaged partly because they’re in a small town, but also because engaged students persist at higher rates. However, it’s understood that classes are set up on the schedule first, then labor commitment, then the student fills in the gaps. There is a complex web of support to help students navigate things year to year, but the student has to be showing those non-cognitive skills of commitment, grit, determination, etc to build the bridges. “It’s challenging to balance heavy involvement with anything (sports, student government, etc) and takes time management.”
Academics are impressive. All students get a laptop upon entering; they trade that in for a refurbished one at the end of junior year which is theirs to keep. Nursing is ranked #5 in the nation. Not surprisingly, they have some strength in Agriculture & Natural Resources and Sustainability & Environmental Studies. The wood in their new Science building is all Ash from the Berea Forest, and 10% of food served in the dining hall comes from the farm. Their Appalachian Studies department based out of the Appalachian Center with a library, work spaces, café, and more. They offer a religion major, not surprising given the college history. “It’s not a Christian college, though,” said the tour guide, despite the college motto, “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth.” They’re inclusive of all faiths. Chapel services are never required – but students do take an Intro to Christianity as part of the 3rd year core. “They basically teach the fundamentals of historical stuff, less the actual theology,” said one student.
Last summer, 281 students complete summer internships: 71% with non-profits/community service organizations and 28% within the Appalachian Region. It’s treated like a course where they have to write reflections, journals, etc. Funding is available to cover expenses if position is unpaid. Upon successful completion of the summer internship, students are given $1000 because that’s what they would be expected to earn over the summer. Students can do this twice!
There are several funded international travel experiences over the summer, and as 1 of 40 participating in the Watson Foundation, they can nominate 4 students for a $36000 stipend for a year of international exploration. Usually at least 1 Berea student gets selected each year. They host Think Globally It’s Friday! – a student who has studied abroad or a student from another country will present, and food from that region gets served. Students are supposed to go to 7 convocations each semester; they cover all sorts of topics from racial issues, LGBTQ+ issues, speakers including Holocaust survivors, etc. Politics here “are about 50/50,” said one of the students. “There are civil debates and heated discussions.”