Liberal Education

The Work College Way: Work Colleges Offer Ideas about Providing an Affordable Liberal Education and Equipping Students for Professional Success

Working while going to college is not a new concept. For the past twenty-five years, around 70 percent of college students have been holding down a job while enrolled. But high tuition fees and other expenses have made it impossible for today’s students to work their way through college to earn enough to avoid debt from paying for their education.1 Students from low-income families suffer the most: only one in two high school graduates from low-income families goes to college, and many opt not to attend because they don’t think they can manage the costs.2

Nine liberal arts colleges—Alice Lloyd College, Berea College, Bethany Global College, Blackburn College, College of the Ozarks, Ecclesia College, Paul Quinn College, Sterling College, and Warren Wilson College—have found a balance in offering access, affordability, and workforce development for their students, specifically those from low-income families. These institutions are known as work colleges, as defined by the United States Code of Federal Regulations. At work colleges, students fill campus jobs (and, in some cases, community-service positions) in exchange for reduced tuition. The comprehensive work-service-learning programs at these institutions have a rich history of providing students with the means to earn a college degree and to become deeply prepared for future career success. The labor programs also reduce overall campus operational expenses, allowing the colleges to continue offering attendees reduced costs for their education.

“It feels like never a month goes by without my reading some news article reporting that today’s college graduates are largely unprepared to enter and contribute to the workforce,” says Amanda Peach, assistant director of library sciences at Berea College. “Work colleges are uniquely positioned to answer this gap in skills and experience.”

Work colleges have been around for more than a century, and while each is unique, with their workforce development, mentorship models, and creative cost-reduction strategies, they are all doing what so many higher education institutions in our country are aiming to accomplish: providing their students with an affordable liberal education that offers the continued promise of lifelong success.

Berea busy

When it was founded in Kentucky in 1855, Berea became the first interracial and coeducational college in the South. Today it serves around 1,600 students, with 78 percent of them natives of Kentucky and Appalachia and more than half first-generation college students. The families of Berea students on average earn less than $30,000 per year. Nearly all students live on campus, with nearby housing for students with families.

In addition to attending academic classes, all students work a minimum of ten hours per week in one of the college’s 112 labor departments, earning a paycheck that helps them afford books, supplies, and other costs. They are also helping to run the campus as they fill positions everywhere from the library to the college garden. Students commit to a labor position for a year at a time, and in exchange for their work, they receive a 100 percent tuition scholarship. (While neither Berea students nor their parents pay tuition, their responsibility for fees and living expenses is determined through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.) When they graduate, students leave with both an academic and a labor transcript, which documents the hard and soft skills students acquire during their time at Berea.

Jackie Burnside, a Berea alumna and current professor of sociology, uses campus jargon like “the usual busy-ness plus” and “Berea busy” to describe the mentality of a student who attends the college. It takes some time, she says, for students to adapt to balancing academic and job responsibilities—each year as they move through academic levels, students also take on more work responsibility, such as supervising and training newer students in their job roles. They can also opt to work in student labor positions at nonprofit organizations in the local community.

Burnside’s own experiences as a Berea undergraduate developed her passion for teaching and research. Her first job as a first-year student at Berea was in needlecraft, sewing the faces on dolls (the college used to have an industry making stuffed toys). In her second year, she signed up to work for an organization that taught high school completion classes in nearby communities. As part of the program, she drove a college-owned car to the next town over to teach in a community center. One of her students was a single mother who subsequently earned her GED and then landed a job in a local factory, where she was able to progress because of her education. The experience inspired Burnside, though she did not pursue a career in teaching until she went to graduate school to earn her doctorate in sociology at Yale University. “I had all these nice intangible rewards to the job, intrinsic rewards to teaching, that you could continue to learn yourself, and you could see people who were welcoming of your assistance. That was really rewarding,” she says.

Today’s students also gain experiences and skills that serve them long after their time at Berea. After the first year, students select jobs to match their interests (many work colleges hold job fairs before, or during, the first week of classes), so they have the freedom to set their own paths and take on new challenges at their own pace. They also develop the soft skills employers seek: They learn customer service as they serve meals in the dining hall or work in the accounting department fielding questions. They learn flexibility, persistence, and resilience as they fulfill the yearlong commitments working in jobs they might not end up enjoying, particularly first-year students, who have less say over where they are assigned. They learn conflict-resolution abilities as they interact with colleagues. They develop time management skills because they must put in consistent hours per pay period and cannot simply work when it is convenient for them. In addition, students develop hard skills, such as proficiency with software programs and expertise in woodworking or ceramic pottery. They also earn certifications for different training programs, such as for handling blood-borne pathogens in housekeeping.

“We’re getting more students who don’t have the same kind of work opportunities at home, so Berea is the first time they’ve had a job,” Burnside says. “One of the big things is learning the value of self-discipline, showing up on time, being stable in their attendance and getting to work. Second is to learn how to ask questions, because there are so many things that they will not know, and to feel brave enough to ask the tough questions.”

Most work colleges use real-world interview selection processes to give students the opportunity to move up into leadership and management roles—job movement is not always possible at institutions using the standard federal work-study model, Peach points out. “The experience of interviewing for positions they desire rather than one they have, including creating a resume, dressing professionally, and presenting their best selves in an interview, is important preparation for the world of work after Berea,” she says.

Burnside tells the story of a student who worked in the Geology Department as an example of how labor experiences at Berea translate into jobs after graduation. The student assisted a geology professor who maintained a collection of different rocks and other materials in a geology museum. The student then supplemented that work with courses in art and technology where she made jewelry and learned to solder metal. “She could recognize different stones, as well as the artistic aspect of jewelry,” Burnside says. Because she was able to connect the work from her labor position with her experiences in the classroom, the student received a job after graduation with a jewelry company in New York City.

Our junior colleagues

At most work colleges, students receive feedback through performance reviews and also work with a mentor. At Berea, Peach says, students are treated much like full-time staff and faculty and develop close bonds with their supervisors. The role of a supervisor, Peach says, isn’t to write students up for no-shows or merely approve their time sheet or to assign them busywork to keep them occupied. Rather, “it is about envisioning ways to collaborate with them, just like I do with my professional peers,” she says. “By considering them my junior colleagues, I am inspired to dream up projects and experiences that capitalize on their skills and interests while also increasing the functionality and productivity of our library.”

Part of what helps foster the collaborative relationship between students and their mentors is the amount of attention Berea gives to training students in their labor roles, Burnside says. “It is a continuous learning environment on the work side the same way we emphasize on the academic side,” she says.

Each spring, Berea holds an awards ceremony to recognize students for achievements such as fulfilling their number of hours, receiving outstanding labor evaluations, and coming up with innovative ideas. Some students, especially seniors, receive monetary awards for demonstrating excellence in different areas. “It’s all part of continuing to help students become aware of the skills that they’re learning, the experiences they’re gaining in their work life at Berea, and rewarding them positively,” Burnside says.

On the flip side, students face penalties if they perform poorly at their jobs. For example, students who don’t complete their contracted number of hours are not eligible for a step raise—which might be a small amount, but which is still important, Burnside says. Also, when students apply for an internship or a program like study abroad (which the college helps financially support), both their labor and academic records are reviewed. “If a student is not in good standing in labor, as well as academics, and character-wise and student life–wise,” Burnside says, “they’re not eligible.”

Creative cost savings

To continue to provide reduced tuition, work colleges use creative and innovative approaches to manage operational costs. One of the biggest cost-reduction strategies with a large return on investment is the employment of students in campus jobs ranging from undergraduate teaching assistants to grounds crew.

Berea’s undergraduate workers, Peach says, help the campus function on a daily basis. Computer science students, for example, developed the online software that allowed the college to transition from paper to digital student-labor contracts, making the process more efficient and sustainable. “Our students are not doing busywork,” Peach says. “There is dignity and room for advancement in all labor, including facilities maintenance and dining services.”

Another key to saving money at Berea is its 250-acre organic farm. Producing beef, pork, chicken, goat, and vegetables, the farm supplies 10 percent of the food eaten in the cafeteria and aims to supply 25 percent within the next ten years, further reducing the need to order food from a pricey external vendor.3

Berea’s long-standing, billion-dollar endowment also ensures students can attend the college tuition-free. The endowment covers around 75 percent of annual operating expenses, and the college secures the rest—about $4.7 million—through intense fundraising efforts and other initiatives. To encourage students to give back early to the college, Berea created a payroll deduction program. Students can elect to have a small amount, such as $5 or $10, taken out of their paychecks to give to the college. In 2017, more than nine hundred students participated, giving back a total of $25,000 to Berea.4

Beyond work colleges

Work colleges have their own unique systems that help to support students, and while their overall structure may not be adoptable for other types of institutions, a number of state and institutional initiatives offer models for implementing ideas that parallel those at work colleges—such as workforce development and mentoring programs, particularly for students from low-income families. The following are a few examples.

EARN Indiana: The Employment Aid Readiness Network (Earn) helps students from low-income Indiana families receive off-campus workforce development opportunities. Eligible students have access to resume-building resources and experiential paid internships. Employers with an approved internship may receive up to 50 percent matching funds to hire an EARN Indiana student.5

Ohio University PACE: The Program to Aid Career Exploration (PACE) supports Ohio University students from low-income families, each year allowing three hundred eligible students to explore their career interests through paid positions. A committee of Ohio University faculty and staff review and rate PACE job opportunities, which are all located in Athens, Ohio.6

Iowa GROW: In 2009, the University of Iowa introduced Iowa GROW (Guided Reflection on Work) to the Division of Student Life to bring together mentorship and supervision through guided conversations between supervisors and their student employees. The division provides jobs to more than two thousand students annually, and the mentorship model was designed to make student employment a high-impact practice that causes students to connect their work with their classroom learning.7

A work family

If a liberal education is an approach to aiding students in developing “strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings,”8 work colleges are the epitome of such an approach to education. As higher education institutions continue to feel the strain from reduced funding, work colleges offer creative approaches to make college affordable for all students, particularly those from low-income families, whom they continue to accept at higher rates than other four-year colleges across the country. Work colleges have also institutionalized strategies to develop a highly employable workforce of intellectual citizens, providing their graduates with long-lasting skills and support.

Skills aside, work colleges offer a true sense of belonging to their students, extending into their lives after they leave campus. In part, this is due to the critical role students play as vital members of their institution and community when enrolled, as well as the positive impact they have on their supervisors and colleagues. “As my labor students graduate and move on with their lives, they remain my students,” Peach says. “I write their grad school recommendations, provide references for future jobs and leases, dote over their pregnancies, and buy rice cookers for their wedding showers. They become my work family, in the same way that my other long-term professional colleagues do. I care about them and am rooting for them forever.” 


1. Anthony P. Carnevale, Nicole Smith, Michelle Melton, and Eric W. Price, Learning While Earning: The New Normal (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 2015).

2. Sara Goldrick-Rab, “Of Course, Low-Income Students Win with Free Tuition,” Washington Post, January 6, 2017,

3. Abby Jackson, “How This Private College Maintains a $1 Billion Endowment without Charging Tuition,” Business Insider, March 30, 2015,

4. Matt Zalaznick, “College President Is Setting the Pace,” University Business, February 18, 2018,

5. “Employment Aid Readiness Network (EARN) Indiana,” Indiana INTERNnet, accessed November 13, 2019,

6. “PACE,” Student Financial Aid & Scholarships, Ohio University, accessed June 28, 2018,

7. “Connecting Work and Learning at the University of Iowa,” Association of American Colleges and Universities, March 2014, ; “Iowa GROW,” Vice President for Student Life, University of Iowa, accessed July 13, 2018,

8. “What Is Liberal Education?” Association of American Colleges and Universities, accessed November 7, 2019,

Erin Morgenstern is the assistant director for leadership in the Career and Leadership Development Center at Ohio University.

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