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How to pay for college with skis or bricklaying skills

Ski-shop owner Pete Schummer paid in full his son's $4,000 tuition at the University of Detroit this fall. That's remarkable enough in today's tight economy - but he paid with skis, poles, boots . . . and long underwear.

Meanwhile, the school swaps tuition, meeting space, and food service for ''everything from paper clips to bulldozers,'' says a university official.

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At Blackburn College in central Illinois, education major Jenny Ford laid bricks during her freshman year, helping to build an extension of the school's physical education complex. Instead of cash, she and the all-female masonry crew got a direct reduction in tuition, knocking off about half of the $8,000 it normally costs for the annual room, board, and tuition at a private school. The small, liberal-arts college, in turn, saves as much as $1.5 million in construction and operation costs by requiring all students to trade work directly for tuition.

The system is called barter. And as the economy has dipped with the tight supplies and high cost of money, there has been a corresponding increase of interest in the ancient art of horse trading. But barter has only recently been applied to one of today's most expensive propositions - college education.

Barter can be done directly, as in the case of Blackburn, which since 1913 has required all students to work on campus for 15 hours a week. But the most flexible - and apparently the most appealing - form of barter catching administrators' attention is the trade-exchange system.

The system works this way: Anyone who wishes to barter develops a line of ''credit'' with one of the nation's 400 barter exchanges. The exchange acts as a central bank, keeping tabs on the ''trade dollars'' accumulated by individual members. The ski shop owner, who does $40,000 worth of trade annually, may give debits the office supply account by 2,000 trade dollars and the ski-shop owner's account is credited with 2,000 trade dollars. He may use them to purchase services with any other trade exchange member - such as a college.

While the annual barter volume has grown at a rate of 15 percent a year since 1979 to about $400 million today, and the number of trade exchange members has doubled to 100,000 since then, only a handful of colleges have joined trade exchange programs.

But there is evidence of a growing interest. The small Sacred Heart College in Belmont, N.C., recently signed on its first barter student - a painting contractor who painted in exchange for $1,200 worth of trade credits, which he used to start on a degree in management. Publicity about the college's bartering brought interest from educators as far away as North Texas State University, Jackson State College (Jackson, Miss.), and the University of Minnesota.

Two colleges in North Carolina have elected to follow Sacred Heart's lead and are expected to trade for tuition during the next school year. The University of Detroit has been ''on trade'' for two years and an administrator says barter has become a ''significant'' line item in the school's budget. He estimates as many as 100 students (or their parents) have bartered for UD tuition to date.

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Administrative interest in the Blackburn College barter program was sufficient enough that the US Department of Education has funded a $35,000 project to draw up organization manuals that other schools could use to start a direct-barter program. And perhaps because of its ability to keep costs down, student interest in the college dramatically increased as the tiny college enrolled 40 percent more new students this fall than last. (At Blackburn, where all operations and construction are performed and managed by students tuition, room, and board is only $4,500 a year. But all students must work 15 hours a week to keep the cost so low.)

''It's just a natural marriage - colleges are facing rising costs and dwindling enrollment, and students are facing rising costs and a low cash supply ,'' says Gary Cooper, president of Barter Systems of North Carolina.

''This is not work study. Every college has that,'' explains one college administrator. Work-study offers students campus employment with the expectation the money will be used for college costs. The distinction is that with barter, no money changes hands, and the services a person receives don't have to come from the one he works for.

Barter is more appealing than outright cash or credit payment, says Nicholas DeGrazia, vice-president of finance and treasurer at UD. ''Someone may want to send a son or daughter to school but they're short of cash, and there's more cost to acquire a dollar of cash than the cost of acquiring a trade-dollar credit - the effective balance of pay is less,'' he explains.

''The painter (mentioned previously) has always had the ability to go to college, but because of cash flow, he couldn't,'' explains Leon Schwartz, a barter-management consultant in Charlotte. With the barter system, ''there is no perceived loss of retained earnings. The painter has discretionary income he doesn't view as discretionary because he spends it right away (when paid in cash).''

Colleges benefit because they are able to bring in revenue they otherwise wouldn't have, either for tuition or for rent of buildings that depreciate without generating any income.

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