ST. CHARLES, Mo. — The gorgeous new dining hall at Lindenwood University serves pizzas hot from a wood-fired oven, turkey breast carved to order by a chef, platters of fresh-baked cookies and pie.
But it's the pork chops dished out at the steaming Comfort Food Station that keep junior Benton Haines in school. It's not that he particularly likes them -- he's picky about his meals -- but the pork chops are paying his tuition.
In a program that holds out thought for food, Lindenwood University now takes payment in pigs.
As the stumbling economy drags down the small farm towns surrounding the college -- towns that for decades proudly sent their top students to Lindenwood -- President Dennis Spellmann has reached out with an offer to barter. He'll 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 so far have swapped their swine for scholarship, trading hogs that are worth little on the open market for classes in business or education on Lindenwood's tree-lined suburban campus. In the bargain, they've 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 who paid in hogs for her last two years at Lindenwood.
Now Spellmann is on a mission to expand the 3-year-old program; he's hoping to bring 50 barter students a year to Lindenwood. He's promoting the deal to rural school superintendents. He's pushing it with agricultural trade groups. He's even advertising in the Farm Journal. "Pork: The Other Tuition Payment."
The offer is well-timed, and not just because farmers are struggling. In the last two decades, college tuition has soared. 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 rose just 25%.
Scholarships cannot fill the gap. Take the Pell Grant, a federal program for needy students. The average grant covered 98% of tuition in 1986 but less than 60% in 1999, according to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, based in San Jose.
The typical graduate leaves college carrying $18,000 in debt.
To help parents shaken by such numbers, college administrators have begun to get creative.
"You're seeing a pattern of ingenuity," said David L. Warren, president of the National Assn. 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 get 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 as undergrads.
Dozens of colleges will freeze tuition when a freshman enrolls, shielding families from annual hikes. A few accept payments in monthly installments, or even let parents finance four years of tuition over a decade. A handful offer employment guarantees. College Misericordia in Dallas, Pa., will settle graduates in paid internships if they have not found good jobs within six months.
Then there's barter -- an age-old practice that, to Spellmann, seems ripe for revival.
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).
As a member of the Green Apple Barter Service, La Roche College in Pittsburgh can trade scholarships for catered meals, construction work, advertising, or any number of other services. It doesn't have to be direct barter, either. A parent who owns a ski shop could snatch up a scholarship, "paying" for it by giving away long underwear to a dentist, who might in turn fill cavities free for a carpenter, who might then build bleachers without charge for the college.
Frame store owner Al Houston paid for his son's degree in chemistry that way, 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, Mo., 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, found themselves losing money on every animal they sold. They didn't know how they could afford to keep their daughter, Sally Miller, studying for her degree in education.