Missouri accepts livestock as tuition

Steve Rock and Steve Rock

ST. CHARLES, Mo. — Sitting in the president’s chair he’s occupied for 15 years, Dennis Spellman leans back and points out the window toward the picturesque campus of Lindenwood University.It doesn’t look much different from many other colleges. Tree-lined streets snake through a maze of brick sidewalks in this St. Louis suburb, and decades-old buildings drip with nostalgia.But when fall classes began at this private university, three students were using the school’s Pork for Tuition program. Aimed at helping rural families send their children to school, the program allows farmers to defray college costs by using the age-old bartering system.What is important to note, Spellman says, is that there are no 300-pound hogs lumbering about, and students certainly don’t don white butchers’ aprons and slaughter cattle in the recesses of the Ayres Dining Hall.”That makes for a funny picture,” Spellman says. “But we never even see the animals.”Spellman understands the confusion.Students and their families pay their tuition with hogs and cattle. The animals then are slaughtered at a nearby processing plant, and the meat eventually is served in the school’s cafeteria.”Things aren’t all that good out on the farm,” says Spellman, who grew up on a ranch in Texas and owns farmland in central Missouri. “I’m not talking about the huge corporate farms. I’m talking about the farm families trying to send their kids to school. This is a problem.””I don’t want anybody dropping out of school because of money.”That is how Lindenwood came to develop a program that is as rare as it is unusual.According to the Washington-based National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, 15 or fewer private institutions nationwide let families barter goods and services for tuition. The association could name only five, including Lindenwood, and representatives at the other schools say their programs no longer exist or are much more limited than Lindenwood’s.”The Lindenwood program stands apart from every other program with which I am acquainted,” says David Warren, the association’s president. “This one, I think, is really unique unto itself.”Comparable programs are even rarer at state universities.Damon Manetta, manager of public affairs with the National Association of College and University Business Officers, knows of no state institutions that offer programs like Lindenwood’s, primarily because “there are more complex rules in place at state institutions because they are dealing with government money.”The Pork for Tuition program at Lindenwood is so unique that it garnered a slice of national and international publicity when The Associated Press moved a story about it in 2002.Spellman appeared for days on radio programs. Representatives of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals swooped into St. Charles and staged a small but passionate demonstration on campus. The program was discussed on a segment of “Today” on NBC, where host Matt Lauer referred to Lindenwood as “Pork Chop U.” Spellman even did a radio interview with the British Broadcasting Corp., a segment introduced with “Old McDonald Had a Farm” warbling in the background.Spellman chuckles at the image of students showing up on campus with a chemistry book under one arm and a squealing pig under the other.Here is how the program works:Students who demonstrate a financial need can pay their tuition costs with livestock. Tuition is $11,200 per year, but the school only asks for $2,200 worth of hogs or cattle at market rates. Typically, Lindenwood officials say, that translates to about 15 300-pound hogs or two steers weighing 1,200 pounds apiece.The student’s family then delivers the animals to a nearby U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved processor. Finding one isn’t a problem, Spellman says, because “every one of these little towns around us has a meat-processing plant.”The school pays the processing fees, and the animals emerge on the other side as pork roast, sausage, hamburger or any of a number of carnivorous delicacies.”Not only do the farmers benefit,” says Spellman, unable to resist using a line that has long since become a punch line around here, “but the students eat high on the hog.”Since Spellman began the program in 2000, nearly two dozen students have taken advantage of it.Students such as Gina Kientzy, a resident of tiny Silex in eastern Missouri.Kientzy, who lives on her parents’ 1,000-acre farm, earned a bachelor’s degree in business in 2000 and a master’s of business administration one year later. Now a graduate student, Kientzy is on track to earn her master’s in education in December.The Pork for Tuition program, through which she estimates her family has given the school about 20 hogs per semester, “has helped tremendously.””I would have gone to college regardless, but I definitely wouldn’t have been able to do as much as I have,” says Kientzy, 26. “All of my friends are talking about all of their college debt, and I don’t have that burden.”Some Lindenwood officials were skeptical when Spellman proposed the program — as he remembers it, “A few board members said, `Oh, it will brand us a cowtown school'” — but they eventually came to embrace it.Spellman doesn’t come across as a salesman. He’s not a huckster, a marketing guru trying to dream up the next gimmick to pump up enrollment numbers.He just wants people to go to college. He is so interested in the students at Lindenwood that he shakes hands with each of them before their freshman year.