9 Work Colleges Where Your Job Helps Cover Tuition

 August 18, 2021
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Work colleges
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Work colleges aren’t necessarily a nationwide phenomenon, nor are they a recent trend — but they could be worth considering if you’re looking for creative ways to cut or erase your student loan borrowing.

Work colleges require their students to take on part-time shifts, sometimes to maintain campus operations, in exchange for tuition credits. In addition, these schools often connect students with positions related to their career interests.

Here’s what to know about work colleges, plus a handy list of schools that offer this hands-on learning experience:

The basics of work colleges

If you’re familiar with federal work-study programs, you might already know they’re an option for lower-income students attending any university that’s eligible for federal financial aid.

Work colleges, however, are in a league of their own. They require that resident (and most other) students hold employment, whether on-campus or off-campus, while they’re enrolled. Unlike with work-study, however, work colleges typically credit a student’s wages directly to their tuition bill.

There’s also more freedom at work colleges: First-year students might be assigned a relatively menial position, but their older peers often get to choose positions they desire.

Work colleges: How many hours do students work?
● Minimum of 5 hours per week (or 80 hours per semester)*
● Average of 6 to 15 hours per week
● Maximum of 20 hours per week (for upperclassmen with special permission)
Source: Work Colleges Consortium
*Schools set their own requirements

The experience of attending a work college could make you more ready to start your postgraduate career. In fact, more than two-thirds of work college graduates (68%) report that their school prepared them for their current jobs, a noticeably higher rate than grads of private colleges (55%) and public universities (47%), according to the Work Colleges Consortium.

As with choosing any school on your college list, though, there are pros and cons.

Pros and cons of work colleges

Work colleges have existed for over a century, with Blackburn College (1913) and Alice Lloyd College (1923) among the programs that pioneered this model.

If work colleges were a perfect fit for every family, however, more would have sprung up in the decades since. Yes, you could score discounted tuition and pick up valuable professional experience as a teen or 20-something, but there are also drawbacks.

Pros and cons of work colleges
Pros Cons
● Save significant money on your cost of attendance
● Gain resume-building experience while earning your degree
● Your college costs are typically not 100% covered
● Work colleges tend to be smaller liberal arts schools in smaller cities, leading to a potential lack of diversity in your academic and work experience
● Some students may struggle to balance the demands of class and work

As we detail below, work colleges don’t usually waive 100% of your cost of attendance just because you’re in the classroom and on the clock. Even if you attend a work college that waives every penny of your tuition, you’ll likely still have to cover secondary (but significant) expenses, such as:

  • Living arrangements
  • Meal plans
  • Textbooks and technology
  • Transportation
What might not be covered at a work college
The average cost of room and board in 2020-2021 spanned $9,080 to $13,120, depending on your school type.
Source: College Board

You might also be put off by work colleges because of the work itself. Some work colleges provide entry-level employment experiences that feed into certain career fields — but what if you’re interested in a different field altogether?

Work colleges also tend to be smaller, and may lack on-campus diversity and nearby metropolises. You may prefer attending the more traditional four-year public university if it means you can study what you want, where you want.

9 work colleges to consider

With the pros and cons of work colleges in mind, this type of school can still a great fit for some families.

But no two work colleges are the same — just as you’ve compared other options on your college list, look at work colleges in terms of their campus environment, enrollment and graduation rate, among other factors.

Here are nine work colleges recognized by the federal government, plus what you need to know about their job programs to make an informed comparison.

School Attendance covered Details
1. Alice Lloyd College (Kentucky) 100% of tuition for students residing in Central Appalachia (across KY, OH, TN, VA and WV) ● At least 10 work hours per week (or 160 per semester)
On- and off-campus jobs available
● 14 work departments include janitorial duties, radio station marketing and daycare
2. Berea College (Kentucky) 100% of tuition ● Minimum 10 hours of work per week
● Work available across more than 120 school departments
3. Bethany Global University (Minnesota) 100% of tuition for full-time undergraduates who are Pell Grant-eligible (but “global internship” costs may be steep) ● A work college that doubles as a missions school
● 16-month religious mission outside the U.S.
● Bachelor’s degrees available in intercultural ministry, entrepreneurship and education
4. Blackburn College (Illinois) Reduced tuition (in the form of a $5,000 credit) ● Claims to be the “nation’s only student managed work program”
● Average of 10 work hours per week
● Jobs across 12 departments help run the school’s day-to-day operations
5. College of the Ozarks (Missouri) Up to 100% of tuition (depending on level of need), and up to 100% of room and board (if you take on summer work) ● Has the self-ascribed nickname, “Hard Work U”
● 15 work hours per week (and two 40-hour weeks when school isn’t in session) in one of 80-plus “work areas”
6. Ecclesia College (Arkansas) Reduced tuition ● Juniors and seniors work in a field related to their career choice
● 12 hours of community service per semester is also required
7. Paul Quinn College (Texas) Reduced tuition (with an average award of $7,000 for on-campus students) ● With close proximity to Dallas, it bills itself as “the first urban work college”
● The lone Minority Serving Institution in the Work Colleges Consortium
● Besides on-campus positions, the school’s corporate partners offer higher-paying employment (up to $15,000 per year)
8. Sterling College (Vermont) Reduced tuition (covers only a sliver of the nearly $50,000 annual cost of attendance) ● Only work college in the Northeast
● Minimum pay of $1,650
● Available jobs include breakfast cook, bicycle technician and marketing assistant
9. Warren Wilson College (North Carolina) Reduced tuition (covers only a fraction of the approximately $50,000 annual cost of attendance) ● 85-plus student work crews maintain campus operations
● Many positions available on the 110-acre campus farm
● Work a minimum of 8 hours per week
● Earn at least $2,172 to put toward tuition

Employment opportunities at non-work colleges

Know that the list above isn’t exhaustive — there are also non-federally-recognized work colleges that come all in shapes and sizes. For example:

  • At the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, students are expected to find on-campus employment to cover their living expenses.
  • At Deep Springs College in the California desert, students work and learn full time on a cattle ranch and alfalfa farm for a zero-cost education.
  • At Webb Institute in New York, aspiring marine engineers receive a full-ride scholarship and eight months of paid internships on their way to a bachelor’s degree.
  • Military academies are also known for helping their members afford higher education in exchange for service.

Of course, you can also seek out a work-and-study experience at a traditional college or university with a broad set of degree programs:

  • If you’re a new student, ask the admissions and financial aid departments of the schools you’re considering about the range of work — and wages — available.
  • If you’re a current student, talk to your college’s career services departments about opportunities that could tie in with your major.

Whether or not you attend a work college, don’t discount other ways to make money and gain real-world experience. You might start by comparing work-study, internships and part-time jobs.

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