Students at Berea College in the Appalachian hills of eastern Kentucky don't spend much time agonizing over their student loans. They're too busy running the school.
Each of the college's 1,500 students receives the equivalent of a full-tuition scholarship in exchange for working in one of the school's 130 departments. Some help run the college's electric plant while others work on the school's farm, several affiliated craft industries, and the school-owned hotel. This innovative financial aid experiment has been going on at Berea since its founding in 1859 and nicely meshes with the school's focus on 'democratic living.' This is no hippie haven, either. One of the South's top liberal arts schools, Berea offers bachelor of arts and bachelor of science degrees in 27 fields.
Berea is one of six colleges around the country that offer student employment as an alternative or supplement to financial aid. Together they form the Work Colleges Consortium. While so-called work-study programs are common throughout academia, these work colleges integrate work and study into what consortium director Dennis Jacobs calls an 'ethic of service.' The financial compensation and tuition aid formulas vary from school to school (not all provide a full-tuition deal like Berea does).
Other schools in the consortium are Alice Lloyd College in Pippa Passes, Kentucky; Blackburn College in Carlinville, Illinois; College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, Missouri; Sterling College in Craftsbury Common, Vermont; and Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina. All are residential campuses where students are required to work during each semester they are in school. Students at the College of the Ozarks work at an airport and at a water-driven mill; Alice Lloyd College students run the college radio station and its daycare center. Compensation arrangements vary: Most of the schools credit their students' accounts each week, though some award grants at the beginning of the year.
As you might expect, these arrangements have attracted considerable attention from high school grads and parents anxious to avoid the crushing debt of most university educations, but Jacobs notes that it's not just the financial aspects of the work colleges that attract students. 'Student work at these colleges is a part of something bigger,' he says. 'Everybody takes their place in the community. Some students who come to these colleges really are attracted to the 'work in common' notion.'
A common practice on the academic landscape of the 19th century, work colleges may be gearing up for a comeback. Jacobs notes that some consortium members have recently expanded some programs to make room for more students. In an era of crippling college debt, it sounds like an idea whose time has come -- again.
For more information on work colleges, visit the Work College Consortium Web site at www.workcolleges.org