When students graduate from Sterling College, a work college in Northern Vermont, they leave with more than a degree, according to Josh Bossin, professor of outdoor education and associate dean of work-experiential learning. They leave with a robust resume.

“The ability to try out different jobs while you’re still in school is like cutting the line in life experience,” Bossin said. “They land wherever they find a passion.”

Work colleges, while scarce, have been around for well over 100 years, maintaining a small but steady presence in the U.S. since before the Civil War.

To qualify as a work college, an institution must be nonprofit, offer four-year degrees and provide students with employment through a work-learning-service program that will contribute to their education.

Sterling is one of 10 institutions designated as a work college in the U.S. Others include Berea College, Paul Quinn College and Warren Wilson College.

A work college designation is separate from an institution offering federal work-study, a program based on a student’s financial aid status. Work colleges require all residential students to work through their programs for at least five hours per week or 80 hours over the semester. 

Sterling offers ecologically focused bachelor’s degrees and is the smallest work college, with just 126 students in fall 2021. The work students do is an extension of what they learn in the classroom, according to Bossin. Each job lays out clear learning objectives, and working students are supervised closely by either faculty or staff.

“If we have a student who is studying ecology, they may have a job working or managing the science lab on campus,” Bossin said. “They’re able to do work that reinforces the topics they’re learning in the classroom.”

Sterling assigns job appointments by semester, after which students can reapply or request a different placement. Some students try four to five jobs in their first two years before they find a good match, according to Bossin.

When a student works at Sterling, they get paid in tuition credits that go directly to their bill. Tuition is priced at $39,200 a year, but students in the work program typically end up paying between $1,000 and $3,500 per semester, depending on which jobs and how many hours they work, according to Bossin. 

The earned tuition discount is a significant enough difference to affect students’ lives, both in college and after they graduate, he said. 

That difference has the attention of some higher education leaders. The cost of higher education is often at the center of debates around the value of a college degree. And moves previously considered dramatic to address the cost of college — like tuition resets and state free college programs — are becoming more common.

Community colleges, which are on the front lines of the accessible college conversation, don’t always incorporate work experience into education. Nor can they always offer students the opportunity to earn a four-year degree.

So, can work colleges provide a work-oriented model from which other institutions could borrow?

Adult learners and the work college model

In November, the American Council on Education released a report detailing how work colleges could serve working learners and post-traditional students — those ages 25 or older who often work full time, have military ties and care for dependents.

It found work colleges’ strengths — reduced or free tuition, job experience and mentorship from college faculty and staff — address student concerns over the cost and real-world applicability of a college degree. Work colleges can also make adult learners’ lives logistically easier by combining academics and work, the report found.

The intentional connection of learning, work and service is the most compelling part of the model, according to Louis Soares, chief learning and innovation officer at ACE and one of the report’s authors.

“There’s this notion that working adds to the quality of the experience and the character of the person,” Soares said. By combining academics and work environment learning, students are able to build a strong educational foundation while still learning how to adapt to an ever-changing labor market, he said.

But the work college model can come with downsides for adult learners.

Most work colleges are located in rural areas and rely heavily on residential students, two things that working adults may have difficulty incorporating into their lives, Soares said. He added that their curriculum also seemed directed to younger students.

“Most of the emphasis of the work curriculum tends towards the beginning of one’s working life. And working adults tend to be folks that have been working for some time without a college degree or maybe some college credits,” Soares said.

At Sterling, 75% of students are 24 years old or younger. But the college sees a fair number of nontraditional first-time students and those seeking a second degree, according to Bossin. In the 2019-2020 academic year, one-fifth of Sterling’s students were nontraditional, the highest rate among nine work colleges studied by the ACE.

A majority of Sterling’s nontraditional students are commuters and are therefore not required to participate in the work-learning-service program. But over half of commuter students still opt in, according to Bossin. Despite being optional, the program is often what drew students to Sterling in the first place, he said.

The work experience ends up being almost as valuable to students, and prospective employers, as the degree, Bossin said.

Scaling up

Another challenge is the relative size of work colleges. Most work colleges enroll under 1,000 students. The largest, the College of the Ozarks in Missouri, enrolled 1,479 as of fall 2021.

The rarity of work colleges and their small student bodies mean that only a handful of students across the country can enroll. Among all 10 institutions, it’s unlikely that more than 7,000 students total are enrolled at any given time. But scaling a work college may cause it to lose one of its strengths — a strong sense of community.

“Its size creates a cohort that lends itself to forming a community. So if you were 40,000 students, could you do it? It’s not clear that scale in that way is the way to go,” Soares said.

Based on interviews ACE conducted, Soares recommended work colleges looking to scale up find ways to replicate the community they offered at their original size. For example, a 300-student work college with the goal of enrolling 2,400 should continue to offer students cohorts of 300 or smaller. This would help maintain a sense of community during growth and allow students more face time with each other and professional mentors.

Sterling, for its part, likely could enroll more students if it so chose. In fall 2021, the college accepted 41% of its applicants.

But Sterling enjoys the work model and all that comes with it, Bossin said.

“We’ve come to realize that we would probably behave this way even without the federal designation,” he said. “We put a lot of pride and energy into giving our students autonomy and ability to take on actual responsibilities that have significant implications.”

That mentality is what serves work colleges well, according to Soares. He said higher education is still working to better integrate formal education and people’s working lives.

“Work colleges, while they don’t have all the answers, have been wrestling with these challenges for a long time,” Soares said. “We are at the beginning of it and I suspect that by the end we will see college and workplaces transformed significantly. And some of those end elements already exist in work colleges today.”