Berea College chief describes meeting with President Obama

Larry Shinn attended a meeting at the White House on Monday.
Larry Shinn attended a meeting at the White House on Monday.

When President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan met with 10 college presidents and the leaders of two non-profit education groups Monday, one of the people in the room was Berea College President Larry Shinn.

In an interview Tuesday, Shinn, 69, described the meeting in the West Wing of the White House as serious and "not for show." The meeting focused on how to reduce the cost of tuition, and how to get more students to graduate from college, Shinn said.

"We are losing more and more of our information workers and especially high-tech workers abroad," Shinn said. "Our xenophobia that we are developing in America — you know, build a wall between us and Mexico, make it harder for people in the Middle East to come to America — is actually against our own business best interest in a knowledge economy."

Obama and Duncan were interested in learning about ideas or policies that could assist in keeping costs down and graduating more students. Berea's answer to keep costs down has been a restructuring that will be in place by fall 2012, when Shinn, who is retiring, will be succeeded by Lyle D. Roelofs, a provost and dean of faculty at Colgate University in New York.

"We need to think in more holistic terms in our curriculum, and so it's better to have six divisions as opposed to 27 academic departments," Shinn said.

But Shinn said his primary contribution to the meeting was to talk about Pell grants, the federally funded scholarships for low-income students.

"We need to find ways to restrict them when they are not being effective and when they are not being effectively used," Shinn said. "In very particular terms — and this does not make me popular with a segment of the higher-education community — for those institutions who graduate less than 15 percent of their population, they shouldn't be eligible to get Pell grants. This is for a few of the for-profits. About 20 percent of the Pell dollars are going to for-profit institutions who graduate 6 percent of the students.

"If you put limits like that on institutions that could receive Pell, there are enough Pell dollars to go around," Shinn said.

At Berea College, 97 percent of U.S.-born students receive Pell grants, Shinn said.

Shinn also suggested this at Monday's meeting: "Why should we fund Pell students for six or seven or eight years? Why can't we say, 'If you can't get a degree in six years, you're out of Pell grants'? So in other words, we have to do things that aren't maybe politically popular, but things that actually make our dollars go further and produce the result we all want, which is an educated citizenry in the work force."

Duncan asked Shinn to put his ideas into writing. Shinn already had; he'd spent 10 hours preparing a packet that he gave to Duncan.

It is not surprising that Berea College was represented at the table. The college graduates low-income students at a rate 19 percent higher than is projected for that population. So naturally, the White House is interested in learning what Berea and other schools are doing that could be replicated elsewhere. In August, Washington Monthly ranked Berea the No. 1 liberal arts college in the nation.

Founded in 1855 as the first interracial and coeducational college in the South, Berea charges no tuition and admits only academically promising students, primarily from Appalachia, who have limited economic resources.

Each student receives the equivalent of a full-tuition scholarship worth $25,500, or $102,000 over four years. The money comes from the college's $930 million endowment (before the economy soured in 2008, the endowment was valued at more than $1 billion).

Every student works 10 to 15 hours a week while carrying a full academic load. Students earn money for books, food and other expenses while gaining job experience by working in more than 100 college offices, departments and programs off campus.

Of the college's nearly 1,600 students, more than 70 percent come from the Appalachian region and Kentucky.

In October, about 40 Berea students rode a bus to New York City to join the Occupy Wall Street rallies, where the rising cost of college tuitions has been a hot topic. Last week, National Public Radio featured an interview with five Berea students who spoke about how their college experience has steeled them to face uncertain economic times.

For his part, Shinn said he "felt very honored" to have been summoned to the White House. And he was impressed by those who attended.

"I did not see anyone at that table who was posturing," he said. "There was no fluffing of feathers and 'Look how important I am because I am here.' We just really care deeply about educating the students we have."

Shinn said it was interesting that Harvard, Yale, Princeton and other Ivy League schools were not represented. Instead, among those attending were the chancellors of the University of Texas, the University of Maryland and the State University of New York systems, the president of Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana, and the president of Western Governors University, an accredited online university. Also present were the president of the Lumina Foundation for Education, which works to increase the number of college graduates, and the executive director of the Delta Project, which studies college costs.

"Together, we formed a piece of the quilt of higher education in America," Shinn said. "The fact that there weren't just the elite schools there meant that it was a serious meeting. I felt I was being asked and everyone else at the table was being asked for their best ideas, and asked to continue the conversation beyond that one meeting. You realize you are talking to people who are in a position to make something happen, but are really wanting to listen. I was impressed."