(NewsNation) — From hotel staff to firefighters, there’s something surprising many workers at the College of the Ozarks in southwest Missouri have in common: they’re students.
While many undergrads are forced to work their way through college to pay for their degree, at the College of the Ozarks it’s by design. Each one of the 1,500 students at the Christian, four-year “work college” is assigned a job to offset the cost of education.
Students work 15 hours a week during the school year and are able to graduate debt-free. It’s a bargain for them, as well as for the school, which can reduce costs by using students to fill many of the jobs on campus.
“So we stay true to our mission since our founding in 1906. We still look after and provide an education to those who are worthy but without sufficient means,” College of the Ozarks Dean of Work Bryan Cizek said.
According to Cizek, 90 percent of each class attending the school must demonstrate financial need as determined by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
The school’s innovative approach is relevant at a time when as many as 43 million Americans hold some form of federal student debt.
While there are ongoing discussions in Washington about forgiving some of that debt, there has been less of a focus on the underlying cost of a college education, which has gradually increased for decades.
Financial concerns top the list of reasons students drop out of college and students from poorer families are particularly vulnerable to dropping out.
Work colleges, which require students to work in return for paying either no or relatively low tuition, are one way to address this problem. There are currently nine universities in the U.S. that meet the federal requirements needed to be designated as work colleges.
Berea College President Lyle Roelofs said they stopped charging tuition back in 1892 after the then-president noticed students would study for a year or two before running out of funds and returning home to start saving again.
“He, first of all, said that every student attending Berea College would also work at the college so they’d have income from that, but he also said they will not pay tuition, I will fundraise with wealthy folks in other parts of the country in order to support this cause,” Roelofs said.
Both the College of the Ozarks and Berea College rely on a stream of non-tuition funding to pull off the work college model. This includes a mixture of private donations, Pell Grants, and sustaining funding from hefty endowments.
Berea’s $1.6 billion endowment covers around three-quarters of the college’s operating expenses for its approximately 1,600 students. College of the Ozarks has an endowment just shy of half a billion dollars; its endowment-per-student ratio is one of the highest in the country.
Relying on this type of funding does limit the number of students that can be enrolled each year and can make the schools particularly vulnerable to changes in the economy.
“If we had an extended period, let’s say 10 years in no real gains in the financial markets, that would start to really hurt because our costs will go up if we continue to educate the same number of students,” Roelofs said.
Officials say work college programs not only make college affordable for students from low-income families — the mean family income for a Berea student is under $30,000 — but also teach them marketable skills and get them invested in the campus community.
“[The] work program is holistic, it does a good job preparing students for their vocation outside of school,” said Sawyer Nichols, a senior who currently works in the College of the Ozarks public relations office.
Nichols said an internship he got through the school helped him secure a job with a digital marketing firm after graduation, serving as one example of how work colleges can set graduates on a path towards breaking the cycle of poverty.
US News & World Report recently named College of the Ozarks as the number one school for social mobility among regional colleges in the Midwest, a ranking composed by evaluating the graduation rates of Pell Grant-awarded students. Berea College nabbed sixth place for social mobility in the magazine’s ranking of national liberal arts colleges. Both schools boast graduation rates that are above the midpoint for four-year schools.
Meanwhile, federal government statistics show that the average annual cost – which includes living expenses – is just $7,195 at College of the Ozarks and $5,222 at Berea College, well under the $19,534 midpoint for four-year schools.
Students at College of the Ozarks work to offset what they’d otherwise pay tuition; Berea College also pays its students for their labor, which allows them to put money towards room and board.
When asked how the work college model could be replicated more broadly, Cizek emphasized that it will take time.
“It’s not an easy thing, it can’t happen overnight. We built this over 100 years… It takes a lot of money to do what we do and it also takes having a culture that thrives on hard work,” he said.