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Students Earn Debt-Free College Degree

Berea College allows students to work-study their way to a university degree

Berea College students pay for their education by working at jobs provided by the college while they study to earn their degrees.
Berea College students pay for their education by working at jobs provided by the college while they study to earn their degrees.

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Mike Osborne

The Friday afternoon computer science class at Berea College looks much like similar classes on campuses all over America. But there’s one big difference. While a four-year undergraduate degree at Berea costs nearly $100,000, these students will never see a bill for tuition.

The average American takes out $24,000 in student loans to pay for their university education. Of those loans, about 14 percent slide into default. However, at this college in the small town of Berea, Kentucky, graduates rarely have to cope with that kind of crushing student debt.

Berea students pay for their education - as they study - by working at jobs provided by the college. Like most students, senior Jane Tonello works about 10 hours a week between classes. The school taught her to weave cloth that’s later sold to tourists in college stores. As a result, Tonello will soon graduate debt free.

Jane Tonella, who hopes to be a doctor, learned how to weave on a traditional loom to earn her tuition at Berea College.
Jane Tonella, who hopes to be a doctor, learned how to weave on a traditional loom to earn her tuition at Berea College.

"It’s a very good feeling to know that at least I’ll have a fresh start financially when I get out of school," says Tonello, "which is very, very nice because there aren’t too many people who can say that."

She hopes to be a doctor and plans to start medical school later this year. While weaving cloth on a primitive loom may not seem relevant to a career in medicine, Tonello says the work has taught her useful skills.

"A large portion of being a doctor is dealing with people and developing people skills, and also time management skills, and learning new things. It’s really not so different."

It’s exactly those kinds of skills that today’s employers are looking for, according to David Tipton, dean of Labor at Berea.

"The student’s ability to work in teams, to have initiative, to be accountable, to have attendance, show up on time - those type of things that really employers are looking at, those types of soft skills that anybody working anywhere would need to have to be able to be a good employee."

When Berea College was founded in the 1850s, most Kentucky residents were subsistence farmers. The work/study program provided a way for penniless students to pay for a college education. For today’s more affluent students, the program serves a different purpose.

The first students at Berea were children of poor farmers, who could not afford to pay for a college education.
The first students at Berea were children of poor farmers, who could not afford to pay for a college education.

"It seems that now-a-days, a lot of times students have never worked and so it is a new experience for some of them," says Tipton. "A lot of them you’re trying to train from the very beginning on what it means to work."

Students are initially assigned work, ranging from grounds maintenance to counter sales in the student center. They eventually get to choose a job from more than 100 different positions, including skilled crafts like weaving and woodworking.

Berea is one of only seven so-called "work" colleges in America, but that may change. Dean Tipton says more schools are expressing an interest in Berea’s holistic approach to education.

"When you’re talking about educating the whole person, you’re talking about educating what we call the head - the academics; the hand - the labor; and the heart - the service or the spiritual element of the individual."

Tonella says her work hours do bring balance to life. She finds the weaving to be a welcome distraction from her medical studies. "I’m very happy to be able to have something that kind of balances out the scientific side and the creative side. And so my job is kind of like my happy time where I don’t have to think so hard."

America’s institutions of higher learning might benefit from Berea’s example. A recent study by prestigious Georgetown University says American colleges are not doing a good job of teaching students the kind of practical work skills the nation’s businesses will demand in the future.

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