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Free College Tuition

Submitted Thu, 05/22/2008 – 18:22.
Imagine attending college for free. Sound too good to be true? You really can get a college education debt-free if you know where to look.

At Berea College in Kentucky, your tuition bill would be exactly $0. The small Christian liberal arts college in the foothills of Appalachia south of Lexington has been paying tuition costs for the past 100 years.

In return students agree to work on campus which saves the college operating costs. But the biggest boost comes from Berea’s billion dollar endowment.

The funds from generous alumni, invested wisely over the past century, allowed Berea to pay tuition costs for its entire 1,500 students. Without the financial aid many of the region’s low-income and disadvantaged students would never get a college education.

Nationwide, there are 76 colleges and universities with endowments of $1 billion or more, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers. Three are in Illinois: the University of Chicago ($6.2 billion), Northwestern University ($1.5 billion), and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign ($1.5 billion).

If Berea can make this kind of commitment to students, why can’t colleges and universities with even larger endowments do the same?

“Their mission does not include explicit service to a low-income population,” said Joe Bagnoli, the head of admissions at Berea. He added that some elite schools worry about the impact on their “endowment growth” if low-income students bumped so-called “legacy admissions” – the sons and daughters of alumni.

A spokesman for the University of Chicago called the effort by Berea College “laudable,” but added that using the endowment fund and making the university tuition-free wouldn’t work at the Hyde Park campus.

“That’s the difference between a small college versus a research institute like the University of Chicago with expensive labs and facilities,” said Bob Rosenberg, the associate vice president of university relations.

Rosenberg said the university’s educational mission would make it impossible for U. of C. to waive student tuition. More than 75 Nobel Prize winners have either taught, studied or conducted research at the University of Chicago, according to its Web site.

Berea may not have Nobel Prize winners, but Bagnoli said the school’s curriculum is as strong as other prestigious private liberal arts colleges and its faculty members are just as “successful in their fields.”

He said Berea isn’t as selective as most top tier schools, but its students achieve similar success through national awards, Ph.D. degrees and jobs. And its “no tuition” policy means everything to its students, many of whom would never attend college without it, said Bagnoli.

Berea College isn’t the only college offering free tuition – College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, Mo., Yale School of Music in New Haven, Conn. and Cooper Union in New York City are three other post-secondary institutions that offer tuition waivers to students.

As colleges and universities juggle expenses and income, a shift has occured away from scholarships and grants toward more loan-based financial aid for students.

It is estimated that college students on average graduate with between $18,000 and $20,000 in outstanding loans. The Illinois average is $17,650 and ranks 36th, according to The Project on Student Debt. The non-profit watchdog group figures 52% of college students in Illinois use student loans to pay for college.

Although few colleges and universities offer free tuition, people looking for ways to attend college have another option – the military.

The U.S. Government once underwrote college educations for veterans of World War II. Federal stipends sent 7.8 million ex-GIs to college and other educational programs by the time the program ended in 1958. Today’s veterans do qualify for some federal tuition reimbursement for their military service. However, veterans in Illinois have additional educational opportunities.

Those admitted to an Illinois public college or community college don’t have to pay any tuition under the state’s veteran and grant program. The grant pays eligible tuition and fees for veterans enrolled full-time in undergraduate or graduate programs. The money is also available to people who served in the Illinois National Guard and Reserves.

For the 2008 fiscal year, the state appropriated more than $19 million under its Illinois Veteran Grant program.

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