Barter system takes sting out of college tuition

ST. CHARLES, Mo. — The gorgeous new dining hall at Lindenwood University serves pizzas hot from a wood-fired oven, turkey breast carved to order, platters of fresh-baked cookies and pie.

But the pork chops keep junior Benton Haines in school. He doesn't particularly like them — he's picky about his meals — but the pork chops pay his tuition. Lindenwood University now takes payment in pigs.

As the stumbling economy drags down small farm towns surrounding the college, President Dennis Spellmann has reached out with an offer to barter. He will trade a liberal-arts education at his small private college — retail value, $11,200 a year — for any commodity the dining hall can use.

Six families have swapped their swine for scholarship, trading hogs that are worth little on the open market for classes on Lindenwood's tree-lined suburban campus. They have filled the cafeteria's freezers with fresh-off-the-farm sausage, bacon — even whole pigs, which are smoked on an outdoor barbecue spit before home football games.

"I often wondered if that was dad's pig up there," said Sally Miller, 24, a kindergarten teacher whose family paid in hogs for her last two years at Lindenwood.

Spellmann now is on a mission to expand the 3-year-old program; he hopes to bring 50 barter students a year to Lindenwood. He is promoting the deal to rural school superintendents. He is pushing it with agricultural trade groups. He even advertises in the Farm Journal. ("Pork: The Other Tuition Payment.")

The offer is well-timed, and not only because farmers are struggling. College tuition has soared in the past two decades. Even adjusting for inflation, the average tuition more than doubled at public and private universities from 1981 to 2001, according to the College Board. Median family income increased 25 percent.

To help parents shaken by such numbers, college administrators have begun to get creative.

"You're seeing a pattern of ingenuity," said David Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

Defiance College in Defiance, Ohio, will cut tuition for top students who pledge to spend several hours a week in volunteer work. Students who cheer on the college's sports teams receive a hefty discount at William Woods University in Fulton, Mo. And Clark University in Worcester, Mass., offers a free fifth year of education to pursue a master's degree to all who maintain B+ averages or better as undergrads.

Dozens of colleges will freeze tuition when a freshman enrolls, shielding families from annual increases. A few accept payments in monthly installments, or even let parents finance four years of tuition over a decade. A handful offer employment guarantees.

Lindenwood appears to be the only school engaging in direct swaps with parents. But a dozen other small private colleges have signed on with trading networks, also known as barter banks.

Members of such networks provide free labor and merchandise to one another. A central administrator keeps track of how much each member "deposits" in the barter bank (in the form of work he does for others) and how much he "withdraws" (in the form of services for himself).

Frame-store owner Al Houston paid for his son's degree in chemistry at La Roche College in Pittsburgh by bartering $75,000 worth of his services to other members of the network in exchange for free tuition at La Roche.

"It was a godsend," he said.

In the farm town of Silex, about a half-hour's drive northwest of Lindenwood, Elaine Bruns echoes those words.

When hog prices tanked in 1998, she and her husband, Kurt, didn't know how they could afford to keep their daughter, Sally Miller, studying for her degree in education.

Spellmann — himself a farm kid, way back — stepped in.

He figured out how much the meat from one pig would cost on the wholesale market. He then discounted Sally's tuition for every hog delivered by the Bruns.

Elaine Bruns figures her daughter's junior and senior years cost the family about 50 hogs. Those animals would have brought in less than $4,500 at auction. To have them cover $22,000 in college tuition is almost more than she can believe.

"It was such a relief," she said.

A formal protest by animal-rights activists has not gained much traction. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals wrote Spellmann this fall, asking him to stop accepting "tortured pig carcasses" as tuition. He brushed off the plea. The rest of his mail has been overwhelmingly positive.

He's negotiating with three families who want to pay in beef cattle. He's also considering taking sheep, although, personally, he's not much for mutton.

Because the college's fixed costs are so high — professor salaries, building maintenance and so on — each loss of one of its 11,400 students is a blow.

"We treat every empty seat in a class, every empty bed in a dorm as an expense," Spellmann said.