Deci$ion$: How One College Snags So Many Students

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Courtesy of Berea College

Kentucky's Berea College does not charge any of its students tuition.

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. (See TIME's photos inside a public boarding school)

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 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." (See how schools are willing to give more financial aid.)

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. (See how to learn from Ivy League professors for free.)

But few schools can afford that kind of largesse. And this year, more students who may have been admitted to (pricily) 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."

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