Work Colleges: What Are They and Are They Worth It? College is becoming a necessity to get a good job, but can you afford it? Check out these work colleges that allow you to attend tuition-free. #CentSai #studentloans #studentloanspayingoff #studentloanstips #studentloanspaidoffFiguring out how you and your parents will come up with ways to foot the hefty cost of college tuition can be daunting. And given that the average American racks up an average of $35,359 in student loan debt, according to Experian, you’ll want to minimize the cost of your college education as much as possible.

But what if you don’t have to pay nearly as much for your education? That’s exactly what David Kretzmann pulled off by attending Berea College, a federally recognized work college in Kentucky.

Why David Chose a Work College

“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 with a degree in business administration and a concentration in marketing. He now works as a financial analyst for the Motley Fool.

Berea College serves students with limited financial options — the average annual family income of students is $30,000, according to the Work Colleges Consortium. It provides every student with a full-tuition scholarship, valued at $39,000 per year.

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Room and board expenses cost roughly $3,500 a year, per the college’s published cost of attendance. However, students pay on a sliding scale based on their families’ income and expected contribution.

As a result, about 41 percent of students at work colleges graduate debt-free, as reported by Berea College. For students who do graduate with debt, the average debt load is around $6,000 — well below the national average.

So How Do They Work?

Berea requires every student to work 10 hours a week as part of the student labor program, which helps offset operating 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 ‘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 led to his first job after graduating.

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What Other Work Colleges Are Out There?

For those interested in attending a work college, there are only eight federally recognized work colleges within the Work College Consortium, which oversees and assesses the standards and practices that work colleges, including Berea, must meet.

Along with coursework, these small liberal colleges integrate work and service.

In order to be federally recognized as a work college, at least half of the full-time student population must participate in anywhere from eight to 15 hours of campus work per week, according to the Work College Consortium.

Also per the Consortium, these schools must provide leadership for these programs that are equivalent to the academic leadership the school provides, including its deans. In addition, a lack of participation in work must result in a punishment equivalent to a lack of participation in academic activities.

These schools receive federal funding in order to operate at such a low cost, and they also seek donations. In addition, many students receive federal grants, such as a Pell Grant.

At Berea College, 75 percent of its operating budget is covered by its endowment, according to the school. Of course, student work also helps work colleges keep tuition low.

“Through the work program, students at Sterling College [in Vermont] earn a minimum of $1,650, which goes toward the cost of college,” says Christina Goodwin, the school’s dean of advancement and alumni relations.

“That $1,650 toward college costs goes a long way,” adds Goodwin. “Because Sterling is a work college, the school has a lower overhead, which means its tuition is lower than other private New England colleges and universities.”

Students can also receive higher pay, as they achieve leadership positions on campus.

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Federally Recognized Work Colleges in the U.S.
  • Alice Lloyd College in Pippa Passes, Kentucky: a liberal arts school with a focus on leadership, multiculturalism, and tolerance.
  • Berea College in Berea, Kentucky: a school founded by abolitionists and dedicated to teaching human dignity, peace, and compassion.
  • Bethany Global University in Bloomington, Minnesota: a school dedicated to preparing students for ministry services overseas.
  • Blackburn College in Carlinville, Illinois: the only work college with student-managed work programs.
  • College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, Missouri: its mission is to provide a quality Christian education for students who are without the financial means to achieve one.
  • Paul Quinn College in Dallas, Texas: a school intended to promote leadership, public service, and community improvement.
  • Sterling College in Craftsbury Common, Vermont: a college that advances ecological thinking and action through majors in Ecology, Environmental Humanities, Outdoor Education, and Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems
  • Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina: a liberal arts college dedicated to promoting hard work and community.

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 310 (Bethany Global University) to about 1,600 (Berea College).

As such, the chances of being admitted are pretty slim. However, most work colleges tend to accept lower-income students and some, including Sterling College, are attempting to increase the diversity.

Work colleges can also vary a great deal in terms of academic retention.

While the College of the Ozarks boasts a 68 percent four-year graduation rate, according to the Department of Education, Paul Quinn College has only a 13 percent four-year graduation rate, according to the same source.

On top of that, you’re limited by 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.

“The work program emphasizes the development of key competencies: accountability, professionalism, time-management, resourcefulness, teamwork, and leadership,” according to Goodwin. As such, students are expected to balance their workload with their academic growth.

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This balance can be difficult, but graduating with little to no student debt may outweigh the downsides.

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.

The Bottom Line

Regardless of where you go to school, it’s important to keep your future student loan debt minimal and manageable for life after graduation. Getting the opportunity to graduate debt free, in a world where college can put students in thousands of dollars in debt, can give you a significant advantage when the time comes to move into the working world.

Of course, it is also essential to do your research first. Selecting a school is a lifelong decision, so be sure to consider all colleges — both work and traditional — carefully.