Kentucky college has stayed tuition-free for more than a century

How one Kentucky college avoids tuition
How one Kentucky college avoids tuition 05:44

With the average American student owing about $22,000 by the time they graduate, it's no wonder Dave Bell never believed he would be able to afford college.

"I thought whatever price to go to college would be something impossible for me to pay," he told CBS News' Michelle Miller.
But the impossible is now Bell's reality thanks to a pioneering school in Kentucky that hasn't charge a dime in tuition for more than 120 years. The computer science major will graduate in May, the first in his family to do so, and it didn't cost him a single penny.

Bell and all 1,600 other students at Kentucky's Berea College, which is located about 100 miles from Louisville, all get a free ride as long as they work for it. It's one of eight federally-designated colleges that requires resident students to get a part-time job on or off campus.

Bell is now a teaching assistant, but he said his first job was in dining services. Students run everything from the admissions office to the historic inn on campus. They even maintain the college grounds.  

Berea College students are mostly from central and southern Appalachia and all of Kentucky. Their families earn an average of $29,000 per year, well below the national median household income.

Dave Bell CBS News

Berea's president Lyle Roelofs said that's largely thanks to the school's endowment, which covers 75 percent of its budget, the federal Pell program, which provides need-based grants to low-income students, and fundraising that covers the rest. 

"There are schools which have equal resources to ours on a per student basis. … I think we could be a model for what we call affordability and access," Roelofs said.

Over the last decade, private university tuition and fees have shot up by 26 percent to about $35,000 a year. However, due to an increase in grants and tax savings, the actual net cost is lower. Still, lower-income families feel the pinch because of rising inequality and stagnant wages since the recession.

"Students that are coming from families with higher incomes simply can't find a seat within our student body," said Luke Hodson, who studied business at Berea and graduated in 2002. Now, he's the director of admissions.

"Our holistic review really tries to determine who has that academic readiness, who has the grit? Who is a fit for the institution? Because Berea is not for everybody," Hodson said. "The idea of asking students to be full-time academic scholars on top of ful-ltime work, that's purely embedded into the experience. It takes a student who wants to manage that well to really persist."

Since its founding in 1855, Berea has persisted in Civil Rights as well. It admitted African-Americans and women at the insistence of its founder, abolitionist minister John Gregg Fee.

Students run everything from the admissions office to the historic inn on campus. They even maintain the college grounds.     CBS News

All that changed in 1904 when Kentucky outlawed integrated schools. Berea was forced to create a separate institute for minorities. But in 1950, Kentucky ended segregation four years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the practice unconstitutional.

Berea has also opened the doors to applicants from outside the U.S. -- those on student visas like Alexandra Cvetanovska of Macedonia.

"So this was definitely a life-changing thing for somebody from a small country in eastern Europe to be given a chance to come here like I got to have some crazy good internships, I got to go study abroad," Cvetanovska said.

"I will never forget the gift Berea has given me," said student Salem Ben Saad, of Tunisia. "And I will be giving back in all ways and sorts in the future."

Dave Bell said he has also been inspired by Berea's mission. 

"For one, that's $100,000 investment in my future," Bell said. "After four years that means a lot when I'm about to graduate with no debt. And also that further promotes me into wanting to give back to the community, which is why I'll be trying to go to grad school and become a teacher myself."