Unconventional College, Conventional Problems

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Berea College has always been a little unconventional. A small school (1,514) in central Kentucky, it was the first coeducational, racially integrated school in the American south. Berea doesn’t charge tuition and all students are required to 10 hours a week in service jobs on campus. Now Berea President Larry Shinn is trying to change some things at his school. According to an article by Jack Stripling in Inside Higher Ed:

Larry Shinn has found the last year to be the most contentious, challenging, and potentially transformative. While grappling with budget deficits, Shinn has fended off student critics who say he makes too much money and taken shots from faculty members for a controversial plan that would dismantle existing departments.

Berea, like many other American colleges, has funding troubles as a result of the recession. But there’s no easy solution to this problem. According to the article:

…Berea is ahead of the curve when confronting the need for a new model, in large part because the college has no other choice. Berea is tuition-free for all students, and maintaining its mission to serve a low-income Appalachian population with free classes presents challenges. Without the option of raising tuition, addressing a budget shortfall of $2.7 million, or 7 percent, as Berea must now do, is no easy task.

Shinn created a planning group, which spent nine months to finding ways to cut the budget. The most controversial part of the proposal involved dramatically cutting and consolidating the school’s academic departments. Berea has 27 academic units. The report recommended retaining only six or eight or them.

Faculty, staff, and students criticize Shinn for the oppressive way he’s gone about this process, and for the way he’s kept outside media closed out of the process. But finding 2.7 million is very, very hard. What Berea demonstrates, however, is that there’s always a way to do it without raising tuition.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer