By Richard Vedder
Watching our colleague Lynne Munson adroitly handle herself on the new Harvard tuition initiative on the Neil Cavuto show on Fox News this afternoon, I was reminded of Berea College. Harvard is getting great plaudits for reducing tuition charges for kids from families making up to $180,000 a year (half the Harvard class --the typical student comes from a home with triple the median family income nationally). Yet Berea College outdid Harvard years ago --with far less money. Harvard has fewer than 10 percent of its students with Pell Grants, while Berea College has 75 percent. Berea has shown a commitment to making college affordable that is all action, not rhetoric, and did it not to forestall nasty federal legislation, but because of a sincere belief it was the right thing to do.
The Berea web site tells the story:
"Every Berea student is awarded a 4-year, tuition scholarship...The actual cost to students and their families is $0...But a Berea education isn't free. We have the same financial obligations that other colleges do. The difference is our endowment. It's a resource made available by people who believe exceptional students shouldn't be denied an outstanding education."
Harvard's move was, on the whole, a very positive one, lowering costs for perhaps 40 percent of the Harvard student body. And it will force some action by other schools. But it was probably more a PR move to head off congressional attack than a true commitment to reducing college costs. Still, it is welcomed. But little Berea, where most kids are poor, has done something more remarkable than Harvard for every dollar of resources it has --it offers a quality liberal arts education to poor Appalachian students at no cost. That is a remarkable achievement. It is more interested in seeing kids achieve the American Dream than competing successfully in the academic arms race. In adhering to principles, however, it has been showered with resources from non-alumni Americans who admire, as I do, what they do at this school in an impoverished area of Kentucky.