Berea College Students Craft a Bright Future, Tuition-Free
April 21, 2023
Written by ROBIN ROENKER
As U.S. student debt balloons to $1.75 trillion nationally, calls for loan forgiveness and low-cost or free college tuition programs are getting louder. Sound impossible? Kentucky’s Berea College has been tuition-free since 1892 — and offers an education in craftsmanship to boot.
photo by Justin Skeens
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in our Winter 2020 issue. This version includes updated statistics and other factual information.
Em Croft (they/them), 19 at the time of this writing, 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.
Getting the feel for [weaving on a loom] and the muscle memory was really hard, since all four of your limbs are doing something different at the same time.”
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 in the studio, 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.”
Sydney Wascom, also 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 recalls. “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, 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), which is still far less than the current U.S. national average of almost $29,000 per borrower.
“[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.
We want students to learn about quality, and about the value of physical labor. We want them to understand the whole process of craft.”
After joining Berea’s broom-craft 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, by deconstructing one that had been made on a mechanical broom-winding machine. Her method enables more students to 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 broom-craft,” 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.”
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—despite its population of less than 16,000 residents—an unexpectedly ideal site to launch a career in craft.
“Berea draws travelers and visitors from virtually every corner of the Earth,” says woodworker Tim Wade, who started his workshop and gallery, The Cabin of Old Town, in Berea 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 provided a stipend, studio space, retail gallery access, and networking opportunities for three to five artists each year.
Funded by Berea’s tourism commission in 2015, the Accelerator program “opened doors for me,” says Wade. “It fostered long-term business relationships and helped me springboard my business.” Sadly, the accelerator program was shut down in 2020 and has been suspended indefinitely since then.
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 hopes 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—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, Em Croft can’t imagine abandoning weaving after graduation. It’s taught them so much about the value of work, and has helped them to imagine a bright 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.”
All photos by Justin Skeens, courtesy of Berea College, unless otherwise noted.
© 2023 Robin Roenker. All rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of any part of this article is prohibited by law.