woman working at desk

by Kara Courtois, former admissions officer at Barnard College

Having held three on-campus jobs for all four years of college, you would have thought I had attended a Work College. However, a Work College is quite different in nature from many colleges in the U.S. At all eight Work Colleges, all students hold campus jobs, no one incurs student debt, and everyone gains valuable career skills beyond the classroom.

Up until this year, I had honestly never heard of the term Work College. A little research and poking around piqued my curiosity and awareness of an important option for prospective college students, especially those concerned about cost.

What is a Work College?

According to the Work Colleges Consortium, “Work Colleges are an exceptional group of four-year, degree granting, liberal arts institutions that engage students in the purposeful integration of work, learning, and service.” In my 20+ years of working with high school students to help determine their paths beyond high school, I have definitely seen a steep uptick in the desire to grow through hands-on learning experiences like internships, lab research, service learning, and co-op opportunities. Work Colleges seem to capitalize on all of these experiences because all of these possibilities exist in their mission.

What are some examples of Work Colleges?

You can see a full list of the eight Work Colleges at Work Colleges Consortium. Each of the Work Colleges has its own unique characteristics, but they share the common traits of being small in size (the largest is 1,600 students). Most of them are situated in the south and some are Christian while others are secular public institutions.

In an effort to understand the merits of and differences from more traditional four-year colleges, I chose to look more closely at the original Work College, Berea College in Kentucky. Here are some quick highlights that I hope will help you gain quick clarity of Berea and the general concept behind Work Colleges:

  • Founded in 1855, Berea was the first interracial and coeducational college in the South.
  • Berea students come from families with an average annual income of less than $30,000.
  • All 1,600 students receive a Tuition Promise Scholarship, valued at $44,100 per year. This scholarship means most students graduate with little to no debt.
  • More than 70% of Berea College students come from Kentucky and Appalachia and more than half are first-generation college students.
  • Berea is a Christian school where “students and staff alike can work toward both personal goals and a vision of a world shaped by Christian values.” In speaking with a student admissions representative at Berea, I learned that there is a Christian Campus Center and several student chaplains, but there are many different religions represented in the student body. Berea requires that students take a religion class and an Intro to Christianity course, but no additional participation in religious activities is mandated.
  • Every student works 10-15 hours per week while carrying a full academic load.
  • Students choose work options from more than 100 college positions. Whether you want to herd cattle on the college’s farm, take photos for the school’s marketing department, or work as a research assistant in a chemistry lab (or all three!), Berea makes it possible.
  • Every student receives not only an academic transcript but also a work transcript that lists their positions held, performance evaluations, and special distinctions.

Who might benefit from a Work College?

Students who value community: Like Berea College, all of the other Work Colleges are small in size, which creates a tight-knit community and offers extensive options for experiential learning. Students looking for small class sizes and the opportunity to graduate with little or no debt may find a Work College a good fit.

Students who want to study abroad: Work College students will gain valuable work experience throughout all four years of college, which may even include time spent outside of the U.S. Studying abroad with a Work College can often be funded through campus scholarships and has very low cost to students. Some of the locations where Berea students most commonly study abroad are Japan, Ireland, Greece, and Malaysia.

Students who want to build their resume: The types of jobs that students hold at Work Colleges vary from manual labor, to office work, to academic tutoring. Work experiences are part of the mission of Work Colleges in order to help students be prepared with tangible skills for life after graduation.

First-generation college students: According to the Work College Consortium, “The majority of Work College students are first-generation college participants. Students graduate with a valued degree, real work experience, and a strong sense of how their work and service contribute to their communities. They leave college with heightened self-awareness and an understanding of their place in the world and the important contributions they can make as individuals. Importantly, Work College students graduate from college with reduced, little, or no debt.”

Work Colleges are unique and may not be what everyone is looking for, but being aware of their merits may inform your student’s next steps after high school and perhaps even reshape some family decisions of how valuable internships, service learning, and part-time work are during college anywhere.

College Application Prep 101

Written by Kara Courtois
Kara Courtois is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions consultants. Kara holds degrees from University of Notre Dame and University of Portland; she completed her graduate coursework at Teachers College, Columbia University and Steinhardt School of Education. Prior to joining College Coach, Kara was a senior admissions officer at Barnard College. Visit our website to learn more about Kara Courtois.