Underserved students need champions, not critics

We write in response to a recent opinion piece by Neetu Arnold, “Pell Grant Expansion Actually Hurts Low-Income Students,” which contains incorrect information regarding our school, Berea College. Arnold expresses concern for low-income students, but nothing in her piece suggests policies that would support their interests. 

Arnold calls out elite schools for their poor success in serving low-income students — and there is something to that concern. Berea’s experience shows that serving Pell recipients requires intentional effort; access without necessary support is inhumane. And we mean support of all kinds — from committed faculty and staff to a new laptop for every admitted student, to a free clinic providing access to dental care (perhaps for the first time in some of their lives), and even $500 for every graduate so that they can move for a job or graduate school and have money for a security deposit on an apartment. 

Arnold is wrong to claim that Berea students “drop out at the same rate as other low-income students across the country, even though Berea students lack financial constraints. … The main reason Berea students drop out is learning about their academic ability — or lack thereof — during college.” In fact, with a student body composed of 98 percent Pell recipients, our recent first- to second-year retention was 88 percent. And for students who entered in 2011, our six-year graduation rate is 63 percent, compared to 49 percent for public institutions, 54 percent for private nonprofit schools, and a dismal 20 percent for the for-profit sector. 

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Berea’s typical student comes with academic promise and about $28,000 in household income for a family of four. We provide free tuition and hire every student for an on-campus position for 10-12 hours per week and pay them — typically around $2,500 each year. For some of our students, a portion of that money will be sent home to support the household. And if a family member encounters some grave difficulty, such as a health issue, our students’ persistence can be jeopardized. That student may be called back home to assist, doing so out of compassion and a sense of duty to family, not out of some awareness of academic inability.  

We are grateful to Congress and the Biden administration for their support of the Pell program.  It’s an investment worth making. Changing one student trajectory can make a permanent difference in the life possibilities of an entire family. 

Here is the story of a recent graduate whose family lost their farm in the Great Recession. They had neither internet at home, nor even a computer. After high school the student began installing ceramic tile in homes to contribute to household income. A customer referred him to Berea College. Upon admission he received a new laptop. He was placed in a computer science introductory course his first year, learned to type via online programs and quickly found his career calling — computer science, a field he had not previously heard of. Today, he is a software engineer at Red Hat. Berea was a way out of poverty. 

Was this successful Pell recipient not worth the investment? Income taxes paid by this graduate will quickly reimburse American taxpayers for their contribution to his success.

This student’s story is not one we cherry-picked. Every Berea student brings to campus similar stories of resilience, grit and a dogged determination to use an amazing educational opportunity to change themselves and the world. Our underserved students — and all Pell recipients — need champions; they don’t need someone fictionalizing their nature and circumstances.

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Let’s agree this is worth doing and then focus on what really works in providing every young American with an educational opportunity commensurate with their talent and potential, not using them as pawns in a war against enlightened and student-centered higher education. 

Lyle D. Roelofs, PhD, is Berea College’s ninth president. He has more than 35 years of experience in teaching and research.

Chad Berry is Berea’s vice president for alumni, communications and philanthropy. He holds the Goode Professorship in Appalachian Studies and is a professor of history.