Berea College: The Most Economically Diverse College in the U.S.

Hispanic Community December 2023 PREMIUM

Berea College, located in Kentucky, stands out as the most economically diverse U.S. college, defying expectations set by its small town and Appalachian Mountain setting. Offering free tuition through fundraising and a substantial endowment, the college prioritizes inclusivity, serving primarily working-class students with a unique work-study approach.


Who would have expected that Berea College, a liberal arts college located in Berea, Kentucky, a town of 15,539 in the Appalachian Mountains, would be ranked as the most economically diverse college in the U.S. according to a study conducted by the New York Times and Ithaka S&R, a higher-education research group? Not Baruch College, located in the diverse metropolis of New York City, and ranked third, not Florida International University in Miami, ranked sixth, but little-known Berea College leads the way in appealing to working-class students, not just the affluent.

Unexpected Leadership in Economic Diversity

Berea College is arguably unlike any other college in the U.S. in several ways. In fact, it charges no tuition for any of its students. Hence, a student who graduates from Berea College carries zero debt. According to the college’s brochures, student debt hurts economically disadvantaged students and their families disproportionately. In fact, Berea College finances its students’ tuition through old-fashioned fund-raising and building up its endowment.

It was the first integrated, co-educational college in the South when segregation ruled. It was founded in 1855, and in 1892, it stopped charging tuition, explained Jodi Whitaker, its media relations manager. Hence, it was a trailblazer 130 years ago. In addition, it has a 96% rate of Pell Grant recipients, which means nearly everyone in the college stems from a working-class background, based on family income reported to earn that grant.

To provide free tuition via its Tuition Promise Scholarships, the Berea College Board approved a policy that enabled all unrestricted bequests to become part of the college’s endowment. Whitaker noted that had that policy not been authorized, “our endowment would be approximately half of what it is today.” By 2023, that endowment had grown to $1.5 billion.

Hence, Berea College’s mission of reaching out to minorities and others by providing free tuition, and encouraging success at college, no matter the student’s economic class, inspires benefactors. “Numerous donors contribute to the college, allowing our endowment to continue to be used for student scholarships,” Whitaker noted.

She described the college as concentrating on “prudent spending. Smart spending and close monitoring allow us to continue offering our no-tuition promise,” she said.

Abbie Darst, Berea’s executive director of Marketing and Communications, explained that the majority of its donors are not Berean alumni but “people who believe in the mission we’ve had since our founding, and believe in free tuition for students of high need. We’ve brought races together and expect them to live together.”

But Darst also noted the college encourages fund-raising from future Berea alumni while they are undergraduates. Berea Patrons encourages current students to help fundraise in its annual $4.8 million drive by giving a small portion of their work earnings, which can be as little as $3 a paycheck. Berea Patrons, since 2013, has raised nearly $200,000. 

The investment return on the endowment supports “student tuition, faculty and staff salaries and various other college expenses,” Whitaker noted. In addition, the college receives federal and state aid for students, meaning  that it must raise approximately $3,500 for every student to complete their no-tuition promise. Still, the endowment serves as the “cornerstone” and provides 75% of Berea’s budget.

Indeed, Luke Hodson, an associate vice president for Admissions, explained that free tuition for all students is a “core component” of the college’s identity. “It’s a testament to the college’s founders who had the foresight and vision; little did they know how necessary it would be in today’s landscape,” he said.

Hodson defined its student body in several distinct ways. Almost all are working-class, whose families earn an average income of approximately $30,000, so economically, it doesn’t attract many middle-class and upper-class students. “We have few students whose parents earn a six-figure salary,” he noted.

Moreover, it’s dedicated to serving students from the Appalachian region and throughout Kentucky, who comprise about 70% of its student body. In addition, 45% of its fall 2023 class are first-generation college students. as are 67% of its overall campus. 

Hence, Lizbeth Wilson, who is the Latinx Student Support Coordinator, said her office provides “a sense of belonging” for Latino students, which research has shown is a major ingredient of student success in college. “They can destress here, find their community, join a Hispanic culture club,” said Wilson, who is of Puerto Rican and Mexican heritage.

In addition, each student receives a brand-new laptop when they arrive on campus, and the college also contributes to a student’s cost for internships, studying abroad and other opportunities.

Students face certain fiscal responsibilities. Whitaker noted that they are responsible for the “cost of housing, meals and other expenses” based on an individual’s family income.  Some may have to take out loans but it also offers financial support to minimize that situation.

In fall 2023, Berea College had 1,492 students. Of its first-year students, 56% are White, 20% African American, 16.7% Latino, 4% Asian, 1% American Indian and 8% are bi-racial. Its three most popular majors are biology, business and computer science.

A Distinctive Approach: Work-Study and Innovation

What must students do in return for this largesse? Considered a work-study college, Berea College hires every student to work at an on-campus job. Not only does this help offset the free tuition, but it also broadens a student’s capabilities and skills.  

Wilson said that the work-study program “goes hand-in-hand with the academic program. Students are getting professional development through four years. We have over 300 positions on campus, ranging from resident advisor, teaching assistant, working with young children in the child development lab or president’s office. They’re learning skills and earning money to help pay their long-term bill for housing and meals.”

Colleges have to keep pace with changing interests. Berea College is constructing “two future-focused buildings,” Whitaker said. When completed, the buildings will appeal to students majoring in computer science, digital media, information technology, applied engineering, and design. The new building project will “make room for innovation through cutting-edge laboratories and studios, flexible classrooms, areas for interdisciplinary exploration and community-oriented gathering spaces,” she noted.

Asked what to expect in Berea College’s future, Hodson noted that Cheryl Nixon was just named president in July 2023. She had previously served as vice president for academic affairs at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Texas, and had been English department chair at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. She will continue Berea College’s dedication to its economically-diverse mission and “see how we can serve students deeper and continue its funding model,” he said.

Hodson describes the Berean mission as being dedicated to serving others. In fact, Hodson, Wilson and Darst, all interviewed for this article, are Berea College alumni and underscores how the college becomes part of a graduate’s identity.

“At its core, it comes back to multiple alumni working here who love our mission and want to be part of it,” he noted.

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