As U.S. student loan debt balloons to nearly $1.6 trillion nationally, calls for low-cost or free college tuition programs are getting louder – even forming a cornerstone of some presidential candidates’ platforms for the 2020 election. How do such programs work? Ask Berea College, which has been tuition-free since 1892 and offers an education in craftsmanship to boot.
Em Croft, 19, is in many ways a typical college junior, juggling classes, assignments, and work responsibilities while pursuing a biology degree at Berea College, a small liberal arts school roughly 40 miles southeast of Lexington, Kentucky. But when Croft* enters the school’s weaving studio for their daily tangle with a 1960s-era, flying shuttle loom they’ve named Mr. Jenkins — or, “Old Man Jenkins when he’s being cranky” — their college experience diverges from average.
Croft is one of 100 students who hold work-study positions in the Berea College Student Craft program, which dates to the 1890s. Another notable difference in their college experience: Like all Berea College students, Croft pays no tuition. The students here, who come from families with average annual incomes of less than $30,000, work on campus for at least 10 hours a week — some work as teacher’s aides, some as groundskeepers or in the dining halls, while others, like Croft, help carry on Berea’s long tradition in handicrafts.
“My brain’s very mechanical, so it didn’t take me long to understand how the loom works, but getting the feel for it and getting the muscle memory was really hard, since all four of your limbs are doing something different at the same time,” Croft says.
Now one of Berea’s most skilled student-weavers — able to compete a small blanket in about half an hour — Croft trains new student workers and is developing new designs that incorporate bolder colors and prints.
“Designing in some ways is an even bigger form of expression,” says Croft, who hopes to attend medical school after graduation and become a primary care physician. “Being able to weave blankets that I really love to make is just so relaxing after a stressful day.”
Croft believes the process of handcrafting — and of becoming a skilled maker — has enriched their college experience immeasurably. “I can go to the visitor’s center and see a signed blanket that I made for sale. There are blankets that I’ve made out there, snuggling up babies,” Croft says. “It gives me a nice sense of pride in a job well done, and I’ve been able to translate that to other aspects of my life.”
A Maker Community
Sydney Wascom, a junior, first heard about Berea College from her high school guidance counselor in Ohio, who told her that if she were accepted, the school would fully cover her tuition.
“I was like, ‘That’s definitely a scam,’” Wascom says. “So he got a representative from Berea to come up and talk with me and I realized, ‘Wow, maybe this isn’t a scam.’”
Berea’s four-year, full-tuition scholarships, currently worth more than $150,000 each, are supported through an endowment, as well as by alumni and other private donors. Students pay only a small amount, on a sliding scale, for room and board and incidental expenses. The result? Forty-nine percent of Berea students graduate with no student debt. The rest finish with an average of around $6,700 in student loans — often borrowed to help cover the above-mentioned living expenses and incidentals — still far less than the U.S. national average, which exceeded $30,000 per student in 2019.
“[Being here] is really humbling for me, because when I talk to my friends from high school and [hear] just the heaviness of having student loans, it’s something that I can’t really understand because I’ve never experienced it,” says Wascom.
After joining Berea’s broomcraft studio, Wascom, a communications major, found she had a knack for the craft. She even figured out how to make the school’s popular “Berea Rocket Broom” fully by hand, after deconstructing one that had been made on a mechanical broom-winding machine. Her process means more students can work simultaneously at the studio’s five hand-braiding tables, rather than waiting for access to one of two winding machines.
While discovering a more efficient process is a bonus, volume production has never been a priority of the Student Craft program. Rather, students are encouraged to learn the value of taking their time, and of mastering the process of making something by hand from start to finish.
Those lessons have rung true for Wascom, who has found broom-making to be labor-intensive. “It can be hard on your body,” she says. “You’re bending over a lot, and it makes your hands really dry.”
Nonetheless, Wascom feels some pride in carrying on a time-honored tradition.
“There’s such a rich history in broomcraft,” she says. “Not many people make brooms today in the United States. Knowing you can be part of that, and have a connection with that small community, for me it’s quite humbling.”
From Raw to Finished
The goal of Berea College Student Craft isn’t to train professional artisans; although, those who follow that route may find the town of Berea (pop. 15,787) an unexpectedly ideal site to launch a career in craft.
“Berea draws travelers and visitors from virtually every corner of the Earth,” says Tim Wade, who launched his woodworking business, The Cabin of Old Town, here in 2017, following a long career as a hospital lab tech. Wade was able to make the transition to full-time craftsman with help from Berea’s Art Accelerator Program, which provides a stipend, studio space, retail gallery access, and networking opportunities for three to five artists each year.
Funded by Berea’s tourism commission since 2015, the Accelerator program “opened doors for me,” says Wade. “It fostered long-term business relationships and helped me springboard my business.”
“The application process is very competitive, and the hope is that the artists will fledge out with new businesses,” says Kerri Hensley, Executive Director of the Berea Tourist and Convention Commission.
Chase Slone, a junior in his third year of work-study at Berea College’s woodworking studio, isn’t likely to follow in Wade’s footsteps as a professional woodcrafter; he plans to go to pharmacy school following graduation. But the joy of woodcraft has gotten into Slone’s blood, and he has plans to build his own woodworking shop someday, modeled after the one at Berea.
In particular, it’s the transformative nature of the finishing process that Slone loves best — that and the pride he feels when taking a raw material, including lumber from Berea’s sustainably managed forests, and turning it into something useful, such as a stool.
“Putting a good coat of finish on, it really showcases all the work that people have put into the piece,” he says. “To see it as a raw, unfinished thing and then put the finish on, it gains all sorts of color and sheen. It just looks so nice.”
Likewise, Croft can’t imagine abandoning weaving after graduation. It’s taught them so much about the value of work and has helped them to fashion a brighter future, in the form of a college degree without debt.
“Once I’m able to afford a loom, I’m absolutely getting one,” Croft says. “It’s not something I could ever give up.”
Robin Roenker is a Kentucky-based freelance writer who covers sustainability, travel, and higher education.
*This story has been updated from the original to reflect the chosen pronouns of one of the interviewees, Em Croft (they/them/theirs), with apologies for the oversight.