Tuesday, March 21, 2023
HomeEducationWhat can work colleges teach the rest of higher ed?

What can work colleges teach the rest of higher ed?

When students graduate from Sterling College, a work college in Northern Vermont, they leave with more than a degree, according to Josh Bossin, professor of outdoor education and associate dean of work-experiential learning. They leave with a robust resume.

“The ability to try out different jobs while you’re still in school is like cutting the line in life experience,” Bossin said. “They land wherever they find a passion.”

Work colleges, while scarce, have been around for well over 100 years, maintaining a small but steady presence in the U.S. since before the Civil War.

To qualify as a work college, an institution must be nonprofit, offer four-year degrees and provide students with employment through a work-learning-service program that will contribute to their education.

Sterling is one of 10 institutions designated as a work college in the U.S. Others include Berea College, Paul Quinn College and Warren Wilson College.

A work college designation is separate from an institution offering federal work-study, a program based on a student’s financial aid status. Work colleges require all residential students to work through their programs for at least five hours per week or 80 hours over the semester. 

Sterling offers ecologically focused bachelor’s degrees and is the smallest work college, with just 126 students in fall 2021. The work students do is an extension of what they learn in the classroom, according to Bossin. Each job lays out clear learning objectives, and working students are supervised closely by either faculty or staff.

“If we have a student who is studying ecology, they may have a job working or managing the science lab on campus,” Bossin said. “They’re able to do work that reinforces the topics they’re learning in the classroom.”

Sterling assigns job appointments by semester, after which students can reapply or request a different placement. Some students try four to five jobs in their first two years before they find a good match, according to Bossin.

When a student works at Sterling, they get paid in tuition credits that go directly to their bill. Tuition is priced at $39,200 a year, but students in the work program typically end up paying between $1,000 and $3,500 per semester, depending on which jobs and how many hours they work, according to Bossin. 

The earned tuition discount is a significant enough difference to affect students’ lives, both in college and after they graduate, he said. 

That difference has the attention of some higher education leaders. The cost of higher education is often at the center of debates around the value of a college degree. And moves previously considered dramatic to address the cost of college — like tuition resets and state free college programs — are becoming more common.

Community colleges, which are on the front lines of the accessible college conversation, don’t always incorporate work experience into education. Nor can they always offer students the opportunity to earn a four-year degree.

So, can work colleges provide a work-oriented model from which other institutions could borrow?

Adult learners and the work college model

In November, the American Council on Education released a report detailing how work colleges could serve working learners and post-traditional students — those ages 25 or older who often work full time, have military ties and care for dependents.

It found work colleges’ strengths — reduced or free tuition, job experience and mentorship from college faculty and staff — address student concerns over the cost and real-world applicability of a college degree. Work colleges can also make adult learners’ lives logistically easier by combining academics and work, the report found.

The intentional connection of learning, work and service is the most compelling part of the model, according to Louis Soares, chief learning and innovation officer at ACE and one of the report’s authors.

“There’s this notion that working adds to the quality of the experience and the character of the person,” Soares said. By combining academics and work environment learning, students are able to build a strong educational foundation while still learning how to adapt to an ever-changing labor market, he said.

But the work college model can come with downsides for adult learners.

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