Q&A with President Lyle Roelofs of Berea College

Berea College, the first interracial and coeducational college in the South, focuses on learning, labor and service. The College admits only academically promising students with limited financial resources, primarily from Kentucky and Appalachia, although students come from 40 states and 70 countries. Every Berea student receives a Tuition Promise Scholarship, which means no Berea student pays for tuition.  Berea is one of eight federally recognized Work Colleges, so students work 10 hours or more weekly, earning money for books, housing and meals.  The College’s motto, “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth,” speaks to its inclusive Christian character.

1. How did Berea College handle the abrupt changes to higher education due to coronavirus this past spring? Did you move to online learning, and if so, how were the courses offered?
Upon realization that COVID-19 was a serious threat to residential college communities and that, should we have an outbreak on our campus, our options would be very limited, we decided on March 10 to end on-campus teaching effective at the end of that week. Faculty, staff, and students all had only three days to adjust, but had we taken more time, the probability of cases on campus would have increased. All faculty pivoted to distance learning, but we did not go to a fully online basis, which is generally understood to involve synchronous activity involving all students and the professor. The difficulty was that many of our students, since we serve only students coming out of economic disadvantage, were moving back home to situations that did not have the requisite internet infrastructure. Courses had to be offered with lowest common denominator technology for the students of a course. Email was assumed, but little beyond that.

2. Did Berea College have different factors to consider than other colleges and universities across Kentucky, or across the country?
Well, nearly all schools have some students from the demographic that we serve, but in most cases they are a distinct minority, and regrettably, sometimes their challenges tend to be overlooked. Not only are technology issues different for these students, but they also often have more complex family situations and may have to take on other responsibilities or a job to bring in some income for the family.  Fortunately, since this happened mid-semester, it was possible to continue paying the students for their campus work, even though they were not able to complete it anymore. We were also able to provide partial room and board refunds. That amounted to a cost to the institution of about $1.1 million, which we were able to recoup when CARES Act funding was provided. Since that funding was calculated on the basis both of total enrollment and Pell-eligible enrollment, we received a fairly substantial sum on a per-student basis. Half of these funds went directly to the students to assist with their costs, and half could be used by the institution for its unexpected, COVID-related expenses.

3. How did students respond to these changes?
That varied a lot. The most touching response was the seniors gathering on the steps of Union Church in their regalia to celebrate the commencement that they would not have. Some students were able to maintain good levels of academic progress in the changed circumstances; others did less well, due to personal circumstances. Most students that I spoke with or corresponded with really missed the support and social experiences of campus life, and many said they had a harder time learning remotely.

4. Did Berea’s students face any particular challenges, like lack of Wi-Fi access? 
Yes, as noted above. We provided hot spots to many students, if there was an internet signal at their place of residence. Fortunately, some of the internet service providers came up with subsidized internet access offers for displaced students—many were even free.

5. How did you ensure that nontraditional students, such as older students and student parents, were well-served by these changes? 
Most non-traditional students and many F-1 international students remained on campus or in their living situation in the town. Some of them had childcare challenges, because our child development center had to close by government mandate, and the schools closed, too. Generally, however, they experienced less disruption than did our traditional students who mostly had to leave, although we had hardship exceptions available to them. It doesn’t make much sense to send a homeless student home, of course.

6. Have students experienced different financial aid needs this year, due to family situations or job loss?
I don’t have direct information on this point, but that was not one of the emphasized factors on the survey of students that we conducted. The most common complaint or difficulty cited on that survey was the loss of (in-person) campus support and fellowship.

7. Were there different considerations for planning students’ return to campus this fall? Have you had any enrollment changes?
Yes, we will now operate under a framework of mitigation of risk, rather than absolute avoidance. Still, we gave students a choice of returning for the residential experience or remaining on a distance learning footing. About half of returning students chose one or the other. Students were also able to request a leave of absence for the Fall 2020 semester and a smaller number did that. We did not allow incoming first-year students to choose an option. They are all expected to be in person on campus. We did, however, allow admitted students to defer until the Spring 2021 semester.

Our overall enrollment is down a bit, but, since no student pays tuition, there is no significant revenue loss. And, in fact, a less crowded campus is a plus in many other ways. Overall, we are serving somewhat fewer students, and sadly it seems clear that the national cohorts experiencing this emergency situation will be negatively impacted, at least in the short run.