Rear view of a college student with a messenger bag walking to work.

Are work colleges the answer to the student debt crisis?

A quick look at how work colleges operate, as well as their pros & cons

Less debt + better preparedness = higher satisfaction

The Work Colleges Consortium says that students graduate from work colleges with an average debt that is $10,000 less than graduates of public colleges and $15,000 less than graduates of private nonprofit schools. Aside from reducing student debt, work colleges help prepare students more effectively for post-school employment, their advocates say.

Robin Taffler, executive director of the Work Colleges Consortium, agrees that interest in this model has risen in recent years: “We have seen an uptick in inquiries as other institutions are looking at this model.” Yet, she cautions that becoming a work college isn’t easy.

“For one thing, you have to find a job for every student,” she says, noting that established institutions can’t just lay off staff and replace them with student workers.

Besides finding employment for all students, faculty and staff must make sure this work is meaningful and that students can learn from it. They have to manage student employees and evaluate their work performance, while also giving students the support they need to be successful both at work and in the classroom.

Related: Could this alternative to ‘free college’ work?

“This can be hard on faculty and staff,” says Taffler. “All of a sudden they become labor supervisors.”

Despite the challenges involved, work colleges can be very rewarding for students. Taffler says they offer benefits that go well beyond graduating with less student debt: “Students get amazing work experience, and they also feel very connected to the institution. They’re deeply engaged in the campus in ways that might not exist at a traditional college.”

eSchool Media Contributors