The most emailed story in The New York Times on Monday focused on Berea College, a little school in Kentucky with a heart of gold.
The college charges no tuition and only accepts low-income teenagers. Every student graduates with no debt. Not surprisingly, the school is mobbed every year with applicants.
Berea is dedicated to accomplishing what a lot of elite schools with multi-billion-dollar endowments give lip service to doing: providing promising teenagers from disadvantaged families a free college education.
Schools like Harvard, Yale and other elites have gotten kudos for providing free college educations for poor students, but the praise is misplaced. Why? Because most elite schools admit very few of these kids. The proxy used to measure how many lower-income students attend a school is the percentage who receive federal Pell Grants, which are usually awarded to families making less than $40,000 a year. According to the Education Trust’s figures, the percentage of students at Harvard and Princeton’s who receive Pell Grants is 8.4% and 8.5%. In comparison, 38.1% of UCLA’s students receive Pell Grants. At Berea, 81% of the students qualify for Pell Grants.
In discussing this phenomenon in my book, The College Solution, I quote the president of St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY, who made this observation about the stinginess of the nation’s mightiest universities. Here’s what he said:
“The wealthiest colleges and universities — those that can best afford the financial aid necessary to enroll a large number of low-income students — in fact enroll the smallest percentage of such students.”
Maybe some day the higher ed big boys will be shamed into doing the right thing.