September 18, 2023

Opinion: The Work College Model: A Potential Path to Reduce Reliance on Student Loan Debt? 

Author: Fatuma Abdikadir, TICAS Summer Policy Intern

Note: The author is a student at Berea College 

The student loan debt crisis, now a trillion-dollar problem, creates psychological and emotional stress, limits career choices, and has economic consequences at the individual and societal levels. The work college model approach could provide a path to reduce student loan debt reliance while also preparing students for the workforce.  

Work colleges provide an educational model that encourages a unique relationship between work and education. Unlike the Federal Work-Study program, at a work college, students can’t opt out of work. Students are required to work as part of their educational journey and their wages are applied directly to the cost of their tuition. On average, students typically work about eight to 15 hours a week.  

Work assignments typically align with their academic goals and are designed to complement the material and skills learned in the classroom. Work assignments range from web production to working on the college farm. Through the integration of labor and education, students develop soft skills such as a strong work ethic, problem-solving abilities, financial awareness, and responsibility.   

Work colleges are federally recognized by the U.S. Department of Education to provide a comprehensive work-learning-service program. Work colleges are unique in their missions and vary in size (educating anywhere from 120 to 1,600 students) and location. While eligibility criteria varies depending on the institution, many work colleges prioritize serving students with financial need. 

The work college consortium includes the following institutions:   

  • Alice Lloyd College  
  • Berea College  
  • Bethany Global University  
  • Blackburn College
  • College of the Ozarks  
  • Kuyper College  
  • Paul Quinn College  
  • Sterling College  
  • Warren Wilson College  

Some institutions provide a grant to cover the cost of tuition, while others provide reduced tuition. Berea College offers students the “no-tuition promise.” This promise ensures that every student who is accepted into the institution does not pay tuition fees for their education. Students contribute to the cost of their education by participating in the college’s work program in addition to other financial aid resources.   

About 45 percent of Berea college students graduate with no debt and those that do typically have less than $7,000 in student loan debt. Berea College prides itself in serving students from diverse and low-income backgrounds, as 90 percent of its students are Pell-eligible and 47 percent are students of color. Furthermore, 70 percent of the student population comes from the Appalachia region — where nearly 20 percent of people live below the poverty line. Berea’s rural-serving place-based nature allows them to educate and funnel resources back into their community.   

Work colleges strive to be a resource for students who desire a fair chance at higher education without having to face the financial burden of student loan debt. The work college model is unique by charging low or no tuition in exchange for real work experience. Work colleges such as Berea College serve as a case study for how institutions can provide students with tuition-free college while also preparing them for the workforce.