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A Working Education

Work colleges reduce operating costs while giving students valuable experience-and less graduation debt.
University Business, Dec 2007

STUDENTS AT MOST COLLEGES AND universities across the nation choose to work for a number of different reasons: as a way to obtain spending money, to help pay tuition, or simply as a social outlet. At work colleges, student jobs are serious business-an integral and compulsory part of the educational journey. Relying on student labor, the small fraternity of work colleges strives to reduce the debt load of students while providing practical work experience.

The first known manual labor institution was established nearly two centuries ago, according to Work Colleges Consortium research. Opened in 1814, the Maine Literary and Theological Institute provided its students the opportunity to earn their education by laboring at the college's farm and shops. Founded by the Baptist denomination, the school attracted young men who were drawn to ministry but lacked sufficient funds to attend college.

In the early 1800s, the church was at the vanguard of providing education to the masses. American education was prohibitively expensive to most and typically reserved for property owners. The concept of integrating labor and academics not only provided a sense of equality-where Americans regardless of their social class could attend college-but also afforded churches the opportunity to train qualified ministers. Soon seminaries across New England and as far west as the Mississippi River turned to manual labor as a means of easing the financial burden of college.

At one point there were hundreds of work colleges. Few, however, survived the late 1830s. The primary hindrance was financial. The monetary obligations associated with endeavors such as running a farm or funding a vocational shop were simply too much for institutions to shoulder as profits failed to materialize quickly enough to repay capital investment.

But there are still seven federally recognized work colleges in the United States: Alice Lloyd College (Ky.), Berea College (Ky.), Blackburn College (Ill.), College of the Ozarks (Mo.), Ecclesia College (Ariz.), Sterling College (Vt.), and Warren Wilson College (N.C.).

Ranging in size from Sterling College, with an enrollment of approximately 100 students, to Berea College and College of the Ozarks, which have nearly 1,500 students each, today's work colleges continue to advocate the basic principles set forth at the dawn of the 19th century.

"Work colleges are committed to an educational philosophy that argues that the student ought to help out in the running of the institution-everything from manual labor to office work," says Richard Ekman, president of The Council of Independent Colleges. "They emphasize that part of going to college ought to be having a stake in the success of the institution as an organization and as a community."

Comprehensive in scope, work colleges are designed to incorporate education, work, and civic involvement into one setting. Practices and procedures vary from institution to institution, but active participation is the cornerstone of work colleges.

Typically, students are required to work at least 140 hours per semester. Regardless of their assignment, students are taught that all work has value and all workers should be valued.

While the work programs in place are ultimately devised to help students gain leadership and management skills, most initial assignments are based on the school's needs, often in basic services. This allows students to gain experience in the service industry and develop appreciation for the contributions of others and the obstacles they face. As students advance to new jobs, they are expected to share the skills they have developed with others.

Training is an essential element of the work experience. Nearly all faculty and staff at work colleges are responsible for supervising and training students. Supervisors and work program administrators help ensure that work requirements don't conflict with students' academic expectations and that, over time, the experiences facilitate major-related job opportunities.

Student work is a critical component of the educational process, and there are repercussions for poor performances or unexcused absences. Each of the work colleges has a multi-step disciplinary system in place, which can ultimately lead to a student being suspended if his or her performance does not improve.

Students can be compensated for their work in various ways. At some colleges, student accounts are credited with funds as their hours are completed. At other colleges, grants are credited to the students' accounts upfront. In addition, depending on the institution, some students receive a paycheck.

Primarily an American phenomenon, work colleges serve a niche for those who want to avoid debt while achieving work experience that can be applied to life after college.

"Work colleges are part of the broad mosaic of colleges and universities that make the American system so appealing," says Ekman.

The work program at Warren Wilson College has evolved significantly since its foundation was first laid over 100 years ago. In its earliest incarnation as Asheville Farm School, which opened in 1894, the entire student body consisted of 25 boys. The school was established by the Women's Board of Home Missions of the Presbyterian Church, a group concerned that many Americans in isolated areas were not receiving a proper education.

Everyone, including the students, pitched in to ensure the success of the school. "There was a feeling if you were going to get the opportunity to receive an education, then the least you could do was work. Those were the realities of the time," explains Ian Robertson, dean of the work program at Warren Wilson.

Since morphing into a four-year college in 1967, the work program there has evolved considerably, but the basic tenet remains the same: students and supervisors work together to operate and maintain the institution.

All resident students are required to work 480 hours per academic year, which is usually accomplished by working 15 hours a week. In all, there are more than 100 work crews with positions ranging from English research assistants to electricians. For the 2007-2008 academic year, students will receive for their labor a credit of $2,952 applied toward their tuition and room and board costs.

While the job preferences of incoming students are taken into account, ultimately, responsibility for work assignments rests with the Work Program Office. Obtaining a particular position depends upon the existence of an opening, the number of students that apply, and the comparative qualifications of the applicants.

Returning students, particularly upperclassmen, are given priority. If they have done well in their previous assignments and want the same job, or a different job for which they are qualified, then they are usually awarded their choice. The idea is to simulate a real world scenario-one in which seniority, competition, skills, and previous work experience all play important roles.

Regardless of where a student is assigned, his or her best effort is fully expected. The work program is designed to teach teamwork, responsibility, self-discipline, and the importance of serving others. "We expect our students to take on a sense of responsibility as individuals for something greater than themselves," says Robertson. Students receive regular evaluations from their supervisor describing their work performance.

The underlying mission of the work program is to provide students with productive work opportunities while celebrating the value of work in the educational process. Robertson points out that while a large number of undergraduate students work while going to college, most institutions don't attempt to integrate work experiences into the classroom setting.

At Warren Wilson College, faculty often reference work in the classroom. There are references to the classroom at work as well. For example, Robertson paints a scenario where a student is having issues with others on the crew. "The supervisor might take the student aside and ask what kinds of questions they could ask in psychology class about interacting with individuals who think differently," he says. "There is a lot of mutual sharing and support that can happen between the workplace and classroom learning."

With students engaged in a number of potentially dangerous activities-ranging from climbing trees to driving tractors to working with electricity-the issue of liability must be taken seriously. Warren Wilson employs a full-time safety training officer, and supervisors are held accountable for safety training. In addition, all students are covered by workers' compensation.

If a student gets injured on the job, the student and the work supervisor are interviewed and steps are taken to prevent such a future incident from happening. Fortunately, such incidents have been rare. "We are very safety conscious, and our safety record compared to industry is very good," says Robertson.

The College of the Ozarks prides itself on the fact that not one of its students pays a penny for tuition. Each full-time student's cost of education is met by participating in the mandatory work program and a combination of private, institutional, and federal and state student aid. The only costs students are responsible for are room and board, books, and incidental fees.

"Students receive quality, cost-free education and appreciate what they've earned and learned during their academic careers," says Richard Dawe, dean of Work Education.

By incorporating a work program into the curriculum, the college attracts students who might otherwise be unable to meet the cost of education. In fact, 90 percent of each entering class must demonstrate financial need. Dawe says students drawn to the liberal arts school are typically hard-working Christians of modest financial means.

Like at traditional academic institutions, a number of factors are considered during the admissions process. Students are assessed on financial need, ACT scores, academic performance, and class standing, as well as community service and extracurricular activities.

Practices and procedures vary from institution to institution, but active participation is the cornerstone of work colleges.

Upon acceptance, each student is provided with a work data sheet and asked to fill in work preferences, previous experience, and major. Incoming freshmen are assigned jobs that don't require extensive training.

According to Dawe, jobs are initially assigned based on the needs of the college, and as students progress, factors like major and career objectives are taken into account. Typically, a student's first semester or two are spent working in the college cafeteria, at the Keeter Center-a conference center with nearly 100,000 square feet of space-or helping out with landscaping or construction projects.

Known as "Hard Work U," the institution has its full-time students work, on average, 15 hours per week throughout the academic year. They're also required to work one 40-hour week per semester. Traditional compensation is not included.

"Students are required to work 280 hours per semester," says Dawe. Although they participate in a work education program, the students are not considered employees and don't get the traditional benefits of employees. "They receive credit to off set the cost of tuition and are not paid."

Trained by peers and staff members, students are expected to develop vocational skills that will serve them well in future assignments and, ultimately, in their professional careers. Teamwork and collaboration are encouraged. Resentment from being supervised by peers, says Dawe, is curbed by the fact that student managers earn their positions through sustained high performance.

After working a semester or more at their initial assignments-depending on work performance evaluations -students may request a transfer. Priority is given to students with strong work grades, class seniority, and to those who have been specifically requested by a supervisor.

Transfers are encouraged, as they provide students the opportunity to learn about other sites on campus and enable them to gain on-the-job training that complements their studies. Some of the available assignments include working at the college's computer center, child development center, or hospital, or at the Ralph Foster Museum, a three-story building dedicated to the history of the Ozarks region. In all, there are over 80 work areas on campus.

Work assignments at College of the Ozarks include jobs at the college's computer center, child  development center, or hospital, or at the Ralph Foster Museum, which is dedicated to the history of the Ozarks region.

The work program at College of the Ozarks entails more than students just punching in on the time clock. Job performance is taken seriously. Students are placed on work probation for a minimum of one full semester if they achieve a work grade of less than a C- or for otherwise unsatisfactory performances. The work experience gained during the educational process is deemed so important that work performance grades are listed along with academic grades on student records. Dawe believes that College of the Ozarks' work program prepares students for life after college. "They develop a strong work ethic, expertise in their assigned work, and become exceptional time managers," he says.

Established in 1855, Berea College was the first interracial and coeducational college in the South. Its contemporary mission is to educate students, primarily from the Appalachian region, who have great promise but limited economic resources.

All students attending Berea College receive a full-tuition scholarship, and admission is granted only to students who need financial assistance. Approximately 75 percent of the student body is from the Appalachian region and adjoining areas.

Since its inception, says David Tipton, Berea College's dean of Labor, the school has placed a heavy emphasis on educating the whole person. "We're talking about educating the head: the academic aspect; the heart: the spiritual and service aspect; and the hand: the labor aspect," he explains.

Students are required to work at least 10 hours per week on campus. There are over 130 labor departments, ranging from woodworking to building management. "There isn't one place on campus where a student isn't working," says Tipton.

Incoming students fill out a form called a labor qualification record that allows labor supervisors to gauge what positions might be the best fit. During the first year, students are generally assigned to entry-level positions that they are required to work at for one year. The placement is not taken lightly. The school's labor supervisors review the student's work credentials extensively and may even conduct phone interviews in an attempt to find a good match.

After the first year, students must go out and find a position on their own. "It is their responsibility to go out and locate something that fits where they want to go in their career and with their academics," explains Tipton.

Berea's program is intended for students to progressively demonstrate responsibility. Students are assigned grade levels according to their classification, experience, and labor position. Freshmen begin the program at Grade 1 and have the potential to move to Grade 6.

Students are evaluated on general performance expectations such as attendance, accountability, teamwork, initiative, and respect. In addition, they are evaluated on job- specific functions. By participating in the work program, students develop an appreciation for the dignity and utility of labor. They are also exposed to a variety of learning outcomes.

In some cases, students choose a position because they want to learn a specific skill set. Tipton gives an example of a nursing student who, acutely aware that a nurse's responsibilities include management and administration duties, chose to work in the college's food service department with hopes of achieving a management position. Eventually she moved to a leadership, or Grade 6 level position, where she managed 13 other students. "There is such an array of experiences that can be taken advantage of," says Tipton.

Tipton believes that certain aspects of work colleges could be utilized by other educational institutions. An example he provides is how Berea's agricultural department integrates its work program with its educational program. If a traditional college is hiring students for work in a specific department, he points out, it might make sense to incorporate the job as part of the educational experience. "There are elements of any work program that could be duplicated in certain areas of other colleges and universities," he says. "When you graduate from here you not only have an academic background, but you also have some applicable work experience."

Chelan David is a Seattle-based freelance writer.

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