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

Americans currently owe a combined $1.3 trillion on their student loans, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s more than double the amount owed just a decade ago—and nearly four in 10 adults under the age of 30 are now paying off debt from their education.

As student debt becomes a mounting problem, college and university leaders are looking for solutions to control rising costs and ensure that all students have access to a higher education. One possible solution that is receiving more attention lately is the “work college” model, in which all students are required to work for all four years of their education. Administrators track and evaluate students’ work performance, just as they do with academics—and this work offsets the cost of tuition for students.

Although work colleges have existed for many decades, interest in this model appears to be growing as rising college costs have forced more young adults to take out loans to pay for their education, putting financial stress on recent graduates.

How work colleges operate

Federally recognized work colleges must meet certain requirements, and in return they receive federal funding to operate their programs. As of press time, there were fewer than 10 such institutions in the United States. However, in just the last few years, two new institutions have joined their ranks. Paul Quinn College, a historically black college in Dallas, became the first urban work college in 2016, and Bethany Global University in Minnesota also recently became a work college.

Related: Closing the affordability gap at Hocking College

What’s more, Silver Lake College in Wisconsin is looking to become a work college, this PBS story reports. And Paul Quinn College plans to start a national system of urban work colleges, according to the Hechinger Report—joining forces with Kuyper College in Michigan and Wilberforce University in Ohio.

At most work colleges, students assume jobs on campus. However, Paul Quinn College has taken advantage of its urban location to partner with area employers so that students have many options for working on or off campus as part of their education.

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.”

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