Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

One Small Private College’s Secret to Success (And a Word on Legacy Admissions)

May 5th, 2009 by Ajuan Mance

Have you ever heard of Berea College? If you’re the parent or guardian of a college-bound teen, or if you’re planning to pay your own way through college, then it might behoove you to learn about this unique institution.

You see, this small private liberal arts college, located in central Kentucky, rivals the most prestigious colleges in the country in the area of student yield (the number of accepted students who opt to attend a given institution). Last year, a full 78% percent of the students admitted to this college decided to attend. The number of Harvard admits who decided to attend that institution? “[A]round 78%,” down from 80% in 2006 (Source: The Harvard Crimson).

We can guess why Harvard has such a high yield. It is the oldest college in the United States, it has the highest endowment of any college or university in the country, and it boasts the largest academic library in the world. It also has the greatest name recognition of any college in the U.S. Throughout this country, the name Harvard has become synonymous with academic excellence and intellectual prestige.

Berea has an amazing historical legacy to recommend it. It was, after all, the first fully integrated college or university in the south. Berea is noted for its outstanding academics and its diverse student body, but these elements do not explain why this small, regional college (Berea is largely unknown outside of the mid-south and Appalachian regions) is able to enroll such a high number of its admitted students.

The key to Berea’s success? Free tuition. Time Magazine’s recent article on this unusual institution (featured on Yahoo! News) describes how a commitment to offering a tuition-free education has made Berea one of the most sought-after institutions in its region. In the article, Time Magazine reporter Laura Fitzpatrick describes how this college’s unusual financial aid program has led to consistently strong applicants and how this year — at a time when the cost of college is becoming a greater and greater concern for parents and students alike — Berea is seeing even greater interest from an increasingly competitive body of applicants:

At Berea, which was founded in 1855 as the first integrated college in the South, all 1,530 students work at least 10 hours a week in a campus or service job, earning $3.80 an hour and four years of free tuition. Eighty percent of the school’s operating costs are funded by its endowment and the rest comes from donations, a tough combination these days: the school announced on Friday that it would lay off 30 employees, or 5% of the staff. Berea did not, however, back off from its commitment to offering a free education, and this year, not surprisingly, as applications cratered at some expensive schools, Berea notched a 15% increase. And more of the students applying were of a higher academic caliber. The number who received the school’s top “four-star” academic rating jumped 10%, raising the average GPA of admitted students to 3.48. All of which might be expected after an October survey from MeritAid.com found that 57% of high school seniors were considering a less prestigious school for financial reasons. Berea is used to getting high-quality students who say affordability is a major factor, says Joe Bagnoli, associate provost for enrollment. “This year, there were just more of them.”

When it comes to choosing a college, cost matters; and if money is tight, then college costs may weigh more heavily in a student’s decision than reputation, size of the library, selectivity, or campus facilities. I can still remember being an admission officer at a private eastern university and receiving postcards from students who explained — sometimes regretfully — that as much as they loved our university and as much as they were happy to have been accepted, there was no way they could say no to a “full ride” (tuition, room, board, and stipend) from another less selective institution.

As college costs increase, I think we’ll see more and more colleges going the way of Berea. Harvard, Stanford, Brown and several other selective private institutions have already cut or eliminated college costs entirely for students from specific income levels. In the coming years, this will likely become one of the main ways for colleges to stay competitive, especially in terms of attracting the strongest applicants. I would love to see all private institutions eliminate all college expenses for any students whose families earn less than — say — five times the combined cost of tuition, room, and board.

Recently, I spoke to a private college alum who was concerned that the high cost of tuition might make it impossible for her to send her children to her own alma mater. It seems that the wide gap between the rate at which tuition has increased and the rate at which incomes have increased threatens even that most cherished source of cultural continuity and alumni fundraising dollars, the legacy tradition. Many have decried the legacy tradition as a form of “affirmative action for the rich” that favors upper-class white applicants. The face of legacy admissions, however, is changing rapidly, as the significant influx of alums of color during the late 1970s and early 1980s is being reflected in unprecedented numbers of African American, Latino, and Asian American “legacy applicants” to America’s oldest bastions of (historically white and male) privilege and power. In addition, HBCUs are depending more and more upon legacy loyalties — Morehouse men and Spelman women as well as Howard, Hampton, FAMU, Bethune-Cookman, Clark Atlanta alumni and others, wishing to see their children and grandchildren attend their beloved alma maters.

If colleges do not begin to make dramatic changes in their fee structures, many of their most treasured traditions and student populations (ranging from first-generation college students to the children of alumni) are likely to deteriorate or even disappear, and this at a time when people of color are finally being reflected in these traditions and the institutions that cherish them.

Posted by Ajuan Mance

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Posted in Berea College, Current Events, Financial Aid, Higher Education, Uncategorized

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