Learning to work at Berea College

By Mark Green

Berea College, at the doorstep of the Cumberland foothills, is a traditional name in Appalachian education, where 1,600 students receive a basic training for success little changed since the school launched in 1869. However, its old-fashioned “whole person” approach to instruction is back in style today – as chic as black-frame hipster eyeglasses.

Tuition-free Berea College is one of the most unique four-year liberal arts institutions in the United States. All students must qualify by economic need as well as academic ability and participate in the accredited labor program for which they receive a work transcript.
Tuition-free Berea College is one of the most unique four-year liberal arts institutions in the United States. All students must qualify by economic need as well as academic ability and participate in the accredited labor program for which they receive a work transcript.

Without changing, its philosophy has gone from quaint to cutting edge.

Beyond the academic skills business employers expect of college grads, Berea’s education approach ensures students also acquire the “soft skills” increasingly vital for today’s workers to be effective and productive. And there is growing realization of just how significant this is to success.

The challenge facing all of U.S. higher education is to go beyond achieving classroom instruction goals, said Dr. Lyle Roelofs, who was inaugurated April 6 as Berea College’s ninth president.

“You also want that student to be an effective communicator, to be good at working in teams, good at leading teams but good at working together with other folks, have a good level of critical-reasoning ability – ability to analyze information both quantitatively and with attention to nuance and meaning,” Roelofs said.

Berea emphasizes respect for others and the dignity of work itself.

In addition to their standard classwork, generating a standard academic transcript, all Berea students work one of hundreds of campus jobs and receive a formal labor transcript. They sign a contract committing to a minimum 10 hours of work a week for the semester, said David K. Tipton, dean of labor at the college.

“You have to be able to communicate with and work with people when you get out into the work world.” — David K. Tipton, dean of labor at Berea College.

They are real jobs performing all the functions essential to the college’s operation, from forestry and food service to information technology and video production. Some students take on two contracts a semester. Berea’s work program is accredited by the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges. It is one of only seven members of the Work Colleges Consortium, which happens to be based at Berea.

“We are accredited just like the academic programs are,” said Robin Taffler, executive director of the consortium.

Berea’s academics, meanwhile, have a long and rich history for quality. Its 32 degree programs have produced graduates that include John Fenn, the 2002 Nobel Prize in Chemistry winner; Samuel Hurst, inventor of computer/smartphone touchscreen technology; Tharon Musser, Tony Award winner in lighting design for “A Chorus Line” and “Dreamgirls;” and Carter G. Woodson, the Father of Black History who in 1912 was the second African-American to earn a Harvard Ph.D. (W.E.B. Du Bois was the first.)

In 2011, Washington Monthly magazine named Berea the top liberal arts college in America, and demand is high. The college had 7.7 applicants for each slot in its freshman class. Those accepted had average ACTs of 25 along with average family incomes of $25,000. Forbes named Berea a “best buy.”

Uniquely – very uniquely – Berea charges no tuition.

‘Little companies on campus’

Accredited college labor programs such as Berea’s differ significantly from the federal work-study program. The latter’s purpose is to provide financial aid. Labor program work is required, assessed and evaluated as an integral part of the education plan, Taffler said.

Justin Jansky, class of 2016, in April sands a dresser drawer for the Deep Green Dorm under construction at Berea College. All possible sustainability practices are being used in construction of a facility expected to achieve LEED Platinum and Living Building Challenge certification standards.
Justin Jansky, class of 2016, in April sands a dresser drawer for the Deep Green Dorm under construction at Berea College. All possible sustainability practices are being used in construction of a facility expected to achieve LEED Platinum and Living Building Challenge certification standards.

“I chose to come back here because I thought it was so important,” said Tipton, a Berea College alum who returned to the college from Lexmark International, where he was a software project engineer, to take the dean of labor post. Tipton also previously worked at the University of Kentucky and in public-sector jobs involving electric power distribution, environmental health and safety, and computer technology.

Tipton said he thought higher education in general was not doing a good enough job giving students those “soft skills” – an opinion one can hear regularly today among employers. As dean, his focus is on restructuring the labor program to enhance and formally recognize the multifaceted opportunities a practical educational program can provide a student preparing for a life of work.

“Lexmark taught me how important it is to be a team player,” Tipton said. His responsibilities included collaborating with coworkers at the international corporation’s manufacturing facility on the other side of the world in the Philippines.

“You have to be able to communicate with and work with people when you get out into the work world.”

Although providing education opportunities to low-income residents of Appalachia is a focus of the Berea College mission, cultural diversity is built in, too. While 69 percent of the student body is from Appalachia, 7 percent is international and 25 percent is African-American. Treating all others with respect is an integral part of its philosophy, as is instilling the perspective that there is dignity in all labor.

Student laborers Spencer Gravitt and Oliver Pogue participated in Berea College’s honey bee breeding project run by Professor Sean Clark.
Student laborers Spencer Gravitt and Oliver Pogue participated in Berea College’s honey bee breeding project run by Professor Sean Clark.

Berea has more than 100 labor departments, Tipton said, and more than 400 labor supervisors.

“There are all these different little companies on campus,” Taffler said. And some are managed as well as manned by students. A benefit of the system is that Work Colleges Consortium member schools are able to operate with “very lean” staffs.

This keeps college operating costs low and provides income to students, which both contribute to keeping student debt low – important with student loan liabilities a growing and increasingly worrying blip on radar screens not just at colleges but in the “real world.”

Historic origins resonate today

Born during the 19th-century manual labor movement with significant influence from Oberlin College in Ohio, Berea College engages in what it calls a “whole person education” of the head, the hands and the heart through, respectively, academics, labor and service. Cassius M. Clay gifted an initial 10-acre homestead in 1853 to Berea founder and fellow abolitionist the Rev. John G. Fee, who named this donated ridge on the edge of the Bluegrass region after an open-minded community from the Book of Acts in the Bible. Fee’s original 13-member church and one-room school grew eventually to become the South’s first integrated college, created as Oberlin’s sister: “anti-slavery, anti-caste, anti-rum, anti-sin.”

From the beginning, as many students as possible were offered work “to help them pay their expenses and to dignify labor at a time when manual labor and slavery tended to be synonymous in the South,” according the school website.

The legacy of those origins continues to shape the school’s organization, outlook and operation today.

Event support functions are among the hundreds of jobs Berea College students work through the school’s labor program, for which they received a graded transcript separate from academic classwork.
Event support functions are among the hundreds of jobs Berea College students work through the school’s labor program, for which they received a graded transcript separate from academic classwork.

Berea is among only 10 U.S. colleges that do not charge tuition. That number will soon decrease to only nine. In April, the trustees of Cooper Union in New York City voted to begin charging up to $20,000 starting in 2014-15 after ill-timed investment decisions before and after the 2008 financial crisis hammered its endowment and crimped the revenue stream it generates. Among the tuition-free colleges, only Cooper Union was Berea’s liberal arts peer academically in providing “a very high-quality educational experience,” according to Roelofs.

Berea College is able to remain tuition-free in part through its student labor program and through smart stewardship of its endowment, which tops $1 billion and is the largest among all Kentucky institutions.

“Seventy-five percent of our revenue comes from endowment payout,” Roelofs said. “It is an enormous percentage. Many institutions with large endowments are able to augment the endowment payout with substantial tuition revenue.

“Pick your favorite elite liberal arts college – they may get 40 percent of their income from an endowment that’s a little larger than Berea’s, but they’ll get another 40 to 50 percent from tuition.”

Fundraising is a top priority automatically for Roelofs, he explained.

“It goes without saying at an institution that does not have the opportunity to increase its revenue by charging tuition,” he said. “It is a never-ending obligation of Berea presidents.”

There is federal college aid since 93 percent of students are eligible for the need-based Pell Grant Program, and Kentucky natives receive KEES (Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship) money and other forms of assistance.

Being tuition-free and top-notch are related

As for other priorities, President Roelofs said his chief aims for Berea College are “to make what it’s doing more sustainable and more excellent in the long run.” For example, the science building will be totally renovated and expanded.

Arriving in Berea last July after six years as a physics professor, provost and dean of faculty at Colgate University – including a year as interim president – Roelofs has deep experience as a teacher, researcher and administrator at elite liberal arts colleges in the United States and Europe.

BC students at draper
Draper Hall, the main classroom building at Berea College, is modeled after Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

After achieving a bachelor’s with honors in physics and mathematics at Calvin College in Michigan, he earned master’s and Ph.D. degrees in physics at the University of Maryland. Roelofs has 35-plus years in teaching and research at the University of Maryland, Calvin College, Brown University, Haverford College and Colgate University. He was associate provost at Haverford College prior to administrative responsibilities at Colgate University.

U.S. and international institutions that tapped Roelofs for visiting appointments and fellowships include the Sandia National Laboratory; the Fritz-Haber Institut in Berlin; University of Munich; Technical University Clausthal-Zellerfeld; and Universität Ulm.

Roelofs has impressive experience in liberal arts academe, but he said Berea College compares well and grades high for the quality of its academic culture and the talent of its students.

“When you are one of the very few institutions in the country, even in the whole world, that makes itself available to students who are not able to pay,” Roelofs said, “you can get some very, very talented students who see this as their opportunity to get an education that they might not be able to get at another institution.

“My wife (Laurie) and I have been working in liberal arts institutions since 1982,” he said. “We both went to liberal arts institutions, and we’ve never seen students like this as we’ve encountered here in our first year in Berea: their ability to organize, their ability to work together, the standards that they hold themselves to – and they’re working 10 hours a week on top of everything else they’re taking on here.”

Education - consortium boxAt last count, Berea has 17,832 living alumni in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories plus 72 foreign countries.

Its job fairs attract some recruiters year after year. Much of its faculty comes to Berea and stays.

“Unless they happen to be Berea alums, and we have some of those, they need to experience this place,” Roelofs said of faculty. “There isn’t anything in their background that prepares them for this sort of an academic community.”

The campus “has much less cynicism about its mission and identity than anywhere else I’ve worked.” The result is a “sincerity … that is really striking to seasoned observers,” he said. Some new faculty do not connect and leave before coming up for potential tenure. More commonly, though, they come with the thought of staying a year or two but soon can’t imagine being anyplace else.

“By and large the faculty become dedicated to the mission and to the community and to the experience of being with these students,” Roelofs said. “Again, in 30 years of experience in higher education, I have not seen the like of it anywhere else.”

Mark Green is editor of The Lane Report. He can be reached at [email protected].

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