Work Colleges Are Blazing A New Trail For Higher Education


Most institutions of higher learning incorporate some level of internships and work-connection assistance, but the primary focus of traditional colleges and universities is on the academics. However, there are some colleges bucking that trend, rather incorporating work into their educational programs so that students are truly prepared for their careers upon graduation.

These institutions, known as work colleges, are particularly helpful for under-served portions of the population. These colleges, nine of them in the United States as of now, offer to their students a path to work that other colleges have seemingly long ago abandoned by maintaining relevance to the areas of study, and keeping their educational programs very affordable.

On the campuses of the nation’s nine work colleges—small liberal arts institutions from Texas to Missouri, North Carolina, and Vermont—students are attracted by a much different environment. They pay greatly reduced or no tuition to attend these schools in exchange for helping sustain their campuses through a comprehensive work program.

Traditional schools offer their students some form of assistance to establish connections in the workforce, but work college go beyond what the other schools do.

They combine a foundational liberal arts education with real work experience (not to mention the typically low cost to students). Work colleges are part of the federal work study (FWS) program overseen by the US Department of Education. At each college, employment is part of each student’s course of study. Students work an average of 8–20 hours a week in a variety of jobs and perform community service as part of an aligned curriculum. They earn tuition credits through their work, graduating with significantly less debt than students at traditional institutions or with no debt at all. From 2008 to 2013, 20 percent fewer work college graduates used student loans than traditional private nonprofit college graduates.

There is currently no third-party evaluation system established for these schools, such as the way colleges and universities are accredited, but students still largely believe that these institutions better prepare them for the workforce. About 68 percent of graduates from these schools say that their experience prepared them for the workforce; only 55 percent of private and 47 percent of public college graduates believed they were adequately prepared.

Though they have a common label, each has a unique mission and purpose.

While the more conservative and Christian College of the Ozarks in Missouri has recently added a required patriotism course for students. Warren Wilson College outside Asheville, North Carolina, is known for its environmentalism-oriented student population. Campus locations and work placements also range from truly rural and conservation oriented to city based and business focused. Berea College in Kentucky places students in jobs crucial to sustaining the school and physical campus, whereas Paul Quinn College in South Dallas leverages its urban environment to match students with city employers off campus.

Each of the schools, in spite of their distinct missions, all instill in their students a strong ethos of work, service, culture, and community that surpasses their competitors. This model is a complicated approach to higher education, but the results show that the idea is working for many of their students, especially for those who come from under-served backgrounds.

Have you ever heard of this type of post-secondary education? Do you know anyone who has gone through such a program? Share your thoughts with us!