What is a Work College, and Should I Go?

Today, there are only a handful of federally recognized Work Colleges in the United States. These colleges offer students a unique value proposition by greatly reduced tuition in exchange for service to the college and surrounding community.

This service typically includes incorporating work into the curriculum. Students work at the school for a set number of hours per week, 8-15 in most cases, and it is credited to the student in the form of reduced tuition. (In some schools, especially in Canada, this kind of arrangement is known as a co-operative education, or co-op).

Students work on the farm at Sterling College, VT. Photo via  Flickr  under  CC BY 2.0

Students work on the farm at Sterling College, VT. Photo via Flickr under CC BY 2.0

You may be thinking to yourself that to students, every college is a work college right? Students usually pick up a job or two during their time in college. How is a Work College different than just working while in school? The main difference is that Work Colleges incorporate the jobs into the student’s curriculum. In some schools, the student’s work performance determines or heavily influences their grade.

Why consider a work college?

There are many benefits to attending a work college. Students learn real-world work skills such as leadership, time management, and responsibility. In addition, students can also save a significant amount of money, although this will vary depending on the college and whether or not you are a state resident.

Students who attend work colleges come out better prepared for the real world with valuable experience setting them apart from other students.

Why are work college so rare?

The idea of a work college isn’t new. Blackburn College is one of the oldest work colleges in the US having started their work program in 1913. So why hasn’t the idea of a work college caught on?

By necessity, work colleges need to be small, focused environments. Could you imagine having a major state university as a work college? With some state universities having 30,000 students or more, it would be impractical to have all 30,000 students working and to have most of their tuition covered.

Depending on what you are looking for, there may be some downsides to attending a work college. For example, because of their size, diversity may be limited. You won’t get a major urban experience unless you attend Paul Quinn College located in the heart of Dallas, TX.

Your academic options may also be limited. All of the federally recognized work colleges are four-year liberal arts colleges. A large percentage of students attending will go on into a teaching or service related career. If you want to get into the hard sciences or engineering, a work college may not be the best fit.

With the limited number of schools around the country, finding one close to you may be another issue. If you are going to be attending from out of state, note that your tuition will be higher than if you came from in-state. Be sure to look closely at the finances of the work college you are interested in. Some may be a more expensive choice than attending a public school in your state.

Let’s take a look at each of the work colleges in the US. 

Alice Lloyd College

Students pose with a life-sized statue of Alice Lloyd via  Flickr  under  CC BY-ND 2.0

Students pose with a life-sized statue of Alice Lloyd via Flickr under CC BY-ND 2.0

Alice Lloyd College is located in the small town of Pippa Passes, Kentucky. The college focuses on developing leaders in the Central Appalachian region including parts of Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. In fact, students from this area are guaranteed that tuition will be 100% covered.

Alice Lloyd College has about 600 students majoring in one of 17 majors offered with degrees in Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science.

Berea College

Berea College is located in Berea Kentucky. One of the larger work colleges in the nation with about 1600 enrolled students, Berea is also one of the highest ranked colleges in this list. With their promise of debt free tuition to students, Berea requires students to work 10-15 hours per week.

With a small student to faculty ratio and high student retention rate, Berea may be a great option for a work college.

Blackburn College

As mentioned earlier, Blackburn College has one of the nation’s oldest work programs – having been founded in 1837 with their work program beginning in 1913. Blackburn has about 500 students and is the only work college to be completely student managed.

At other work colleges, students typically report to a faculty or other staff member, but at Blackburn, all work is managed and completed by students. In fact, ten of the buildings on campus were built by students.

Arieal photo of College of the Ozarks by  KTrimble  (talk) under CC BY-SA 3.0

Arieal photo of College of the Ozarks by KTrimble (talk) under CC BY-SA 3.0

College of the Ozarks

College of the Ozarks is a small Christian liberal arts college located in Point Lookout Missouri. Like Berea, College of the Ozarks is one of the larger work colleges in the US with about 1500 enrolled students. Known as “Hard Work U”, Students are expected to work 15 hours per week in addition to their full course load.

The college believes so strongly in the value of working that they include performance results in the student record.

Ecclesia College

Ecclesia College is a small Christian school located in Springdale, Arkansas. With just under 200 students, Ecclesia offers a small town feel to the campus allowing students to participate in working and learning together.

Ecclesia offers a choice of seven majors with a focus on Christian studies, ministries and biblical studies.

Paul Quinn College

The only urban work colleges in the nation, Paul Quinn College is located in the heart of Dallas, TX. Paul Quinn is also unique in that is the only Minority Serving Institution in the Work College Consortium.

Paul Quinn College has just over 400 students and offers a faith-based environment with degree programs in business administration, liberal arts, legal studies and religious studies.

Solar panels at Sterling College via  Flickr  under  CC BY-SA 2.0

Solar panels at Sterling College via Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0

Sterling College

Sterling College has a focus on the outdoors and our environment with the end goal of you becoming an environmental steward. Programs focus on various environmental topics and issues such as ecology, sustainable agriculture, environmental education and sustainable food systems.

Sterling is the only work college in New England – northern Vermont to be exact - so be sure to have a winter coat!

Sunrise at Warren Wilson College via  Flickr  under  CC BY-SA 2.0

Sunrise at Warren Wilson College via Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0

Warren Wilson College

Warrant Wilson College is located in Asheville, North Carolina and is a small work college offering degrees in 34 different programs including some international study.

Warren Wilson College focuses on the triad of academics, work and service to help build successful leaders. Students attend Warren Wilson for their environmental studies and creative writing programs.


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