Decisions: How One College Is Snagging So Many Students


Decisions: How One College Is Snagging So Many Students

For high school seniors, May 1 was D-Day. Decision Day. After weeks of
weighing the pros and cons, they had until the last mail pickup on Friday to
postmark a deposit to reserve a spot in next year’s freshman class. In this
spring of economic certainty, many nationally known schools are sweating
over whether they’ll enroll, or “yield,” enough students to fill the class
— an outcome officials won’t know for sure until all the deposits are
tallied over the coming weeks. But in a tiny corner of Kentucky, one little
college is doing just fine. Berea College is on track to yield 78% of the
students it accepted this year — and thereby beat Harvard’s 2008 haul.
The school’s secret? Free tuition.

At Berea, which was founded in 1855 as the first integrated college in the
South, all 1,530 students work at least 10 hours a week in a campus or
service job, earning $3.80 an hour and four years of free tuition. Eighty percent of the school’s operating costs are funded by its endowment and the rest comes from donations, a tough combination these days: the school announced on Friday that it would lay off 30 employees, or 5% of the staff. Berea did not, however, back off from its commitment to offering a free education, and this year, not surprisingly, as applications cratered at some expensive schools, Berea notched a 15% increase. And more of the students applying were of a higher academic caliber. The number who received the
school’s top “four-star” academic rating jumped 10%, raising the average GPA
of admitted students to 3.48. All of which might be expected after an
October survey from MeritAid.com found that 57% of high school seniors were
considering a less prestigious school for financial reasons. Berea is used
to getting high-quality students who say affordability is a major factor,
says Joe Bagnoli, associate provost for enrollment. “This year, there were
just more of them.”

What the school didn’t expect, however, was to hang on to so many of those
top students. Typically, while admissions officials say Berea has a 54%
chance of snagging a student who scores between 540 and 650 on the verbal
section of the SAT, the chance of enrolling an applicant who gets
between 660 and 800 is only 40%. Case in point: Bagnoli says he received a
call on May 1 from a parent who reported that his daughter had gotten into Stanford, where her financial aid would cover four years of tuition,
room, board and fees as well as a travel stipend. “They didn’t know how they
could pass up the opportunity,” Bagnoli notes.

But few schools can afford that kind of largesse. And this year, more
students who may have been admitted to prestigious schools are passing
them up and opting to go to Berea instead. While a 78% yield would not be an
increase from last year, it would not be a decrease, either — as Bagnoli says
it almost certainly would have been in flusher times.

With some deposits arriving Friday and others still en route, Bagnoli says he expects the school’s yield to hold steady at 78% — or even possibly rise. “It
would be a little presumptuous of me to say that’s going to happen,” he
says. “But I wouldn’t be surprised.”

TIME’s Special Report: How to Fix America’s Schools

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