Work Colleges: What’s the ROI on Tuition-Free Schools?
Figuring out how you and your parents will come up with ways to foot the hefty cost of college tuition can be daunting. And after the class of 2016 graduate racked up an average of $37,172 in student loan debt, you’ll want to minimize the cost of your college education as much as possible.
But what if you don’t have to pay for college tuition at all? That’s exactly what David Kretzmann pulled off by attending Berea College, a federally recognized work college in Kentucky.
“I felt college was worthwhile, but not worth shackling yourself with tens of thousands of dollars in debt,” says the 24-year-old Kretzmann, who graduated in 2014 with a degree in business administration and a concentration in marketing. He now works as a financial analyst for the Motley Fool.
Berea serves students with limited financial options. The average annual family income of students here is $28,000. It provides every student a full-tuition scholarship, which costs about $100,000 for the entire four years. Room and board expenses can cost about $5,500 to $6,000 per semester. However, students pay on a sliding scale based on their families’ income and expected contribution. As a result, about a third of students graduate debt-free from Berea. For Berea students who do graduate with debt, the average debt load is around $8,000 — well below the national average.
So How Do Tuition-Free Schools Work?
Berea requires every student to work 10 hours a week as part of the student labor program, which helps offset the costs. For instance, Kretzmann worked with fellow students organizing an after-school program for kids and also served as a research assistant. He later took on various positions in student government, as well.
“It democratizes the student experience,” Kretzmann explains. “You know that every student is putting in the ‘sweat equity’ into the college.”
In addition to participating in the college’s work program, Kretzmann was admitted into the school’s two-year summer entrepreneurial program. This included a paid internship and gave him the opportunity to develop valuable experience.
“I felt as if I’d had a pretty good foundation into the real world,” Kretzmann says. “My learning wasn’t limited to a textbook or classroom. By working with other people on a team, I developed hands-on skills that I normally wouldn’t acquire.”
He was selected to join the Motley Fool’s Analyst Development Program, which landed him his current job.
Further Reading: “Why Colleges With Entrepreneurship Programs Are Growing”
- Alice Lloyd College in Pippa Passes, Kentucky
- Berea College in Berea, Kentucky
- Blackburn College in Carlinville, Illinois
- College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, Missouri
- Ecclesia College in Springdale, Arkansas
- Sterling College in Sterling, Kansas
- Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina
What Other Work Colleges Are Out There?
For those interested in attending a tuition-free school, there are only seven federally recognized work colleges in the U.S., including Berea.
Along with coursework, these small liberal colleges integrate work and service and require anywhere from eight to 15 hours of campus work a week. Students can graduate with a debt-load as low as $5,000, and the faculty-to-student ratio remains small.
The Pros and Cons of Work Colleges
Unfortunately, there are only a handful of work colleges like Berea, and the size of the student population ranges anywhere from 200 (like Ecclesia) to about 1,600 undergraduates (Berea). As such, the chances of gaining admittance are pretty slim. On top of that, you’re limited to location. So you might have to give up living in a bustling city like New York or Boston in exchange for a quieter, more rural college experience.
You’ll also have to prepare for the rigors of balancing a full course load with your campus job. “Having discipline is essential to be able to get the most out of a work college and not get overwhelmed or discouraged,” says Kretzmann.
But graduating college with little to no student debt may outweigh the negatives of tuition-free schools. Kretzmann says that the trade-off between going to college in his home state and going to Berea was worth it. “While it was intense and overwhelming at first to have a full slate of work and study every day, it was a unique and valuable experience to be in the ‘Berea Bubble,’” he reflects.
Regardless of where you go to school, Kretzmann says that you should work on minimizing your student loan debt. Of course, there is no place that does it better than a tuition-free school!
Further Reading: Learn everything you need to know about student loan refinancing.