Student loan debt and the rising cost of secondary education can be major issues for college enrollees. So one Kentucky institution stands out for a long-held policy that, these days, could actually be considered novel. Welcome to Berea College, one of the few schools in America that don’t require students to pay tuition. 

That isn’t the only element that sets the school apart, though. Founded in 1855 by an abolitionist minister and located in the city of Berea, it was the first interracial and coeducational college in the South. And per its website, no student has paid to attend since 1892. An astonishing feat, but how exactly does the college stay afloat without charging? It’s all thanks to an endowment created more than 100 years ago. 

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Participants in the Selma to Montgomery March, at Berea College in 1965

Over time, that fund has grown to exceed $1 billion, making it possible for interest to cover 74% of annual costs, with another 18% coming from state and federal aid. The college still requires an additional 8% — or $5 million — to operate each year. Fortunately, it has many generous donors. For instance, 2021 saw more than 14,300 alumni and supporters give back to the school to ensure nearly 1,600 students could attend for free. 

“I think that more innovative, creative thinking is what higher ed needs right now, when people are really questioning, ‘What’s the return on investment in higher ed?’” school President Cheryl Nixon said in an interview with PBS, adding that if the field could “be a bit courageous, a bit brave, it could take pieces of this model and replicate it … looking at how it spends its endowment and putting more of that towards student care and student support.”


Another unique aspect of the school? It’s part of a small cohort of federally recognized work colleges in the U.S., meaning all students are employed on campus during their time there. Earning a small salary that typically goes toward housing and living expenses, they work 10-15 hours a week, doing everything from web design to farming and woodworking

With zero tuition, one would imagine Berea College is quite selective. Indeed, the educational establishment considers both an applicant’s academic and financial status. The average ACT score for an attending student is about 25, and most have around a 3.5 high school GPA. Their household income must also fall under a certain threshold to allow for their eligibility. 

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“Berea has facets in our model that we hope other institutions can learn from and make their own,” Nixon told Kentucky business publication The Lane Report. “We want to prove the value of higher education more broadly, ensuring that all students see college as part of their life’s dream — without the barrier of funding.” 

In a 2019 feature by the BBC, one student detailed just how life-changing the school’s tuition-free policy was for her. After finding herself homeless following a family crisis in her senior year of high school in Texas, Sophie Nwaorkoro believed she wouldn’t be able to continue her education. That is, until she heard back from a Berea College representative. 


“When she told me that [everything would be covered], I broke down and cried,” Nwaorkoro shared. “They just opened up a door that I was really sure had been closed.”