Is the Work College Model the 'Wave of the Future' for Reaching Underserved Students?

By Allie Bidwell, NASFAA Senior Reporter

Working during college — to a certain extent — can have its benefits, both for students and for institutions. Students are able to bring in a little extra money to pay for college, and institutions can employ students on campus for a lower cost. But many have said the Federal Work-Study (FWS) system needs adjustments to better serve its student participants, particularly as employers bemoan college graduates' apparent lack of both "hard" and "soft" job skills, and a new report from the American Enterprise Institute argues traditional liberal arts colleges can look to the nation's nine work colleges for inspiration.

Located in eight states across the country, the work colleges operate on a slightly different model than institutions that participate in the FWS program. Unlike traditional liberal arts colleges, work colleges fully integrate students' work opportunities into their academic experiences. Essentially, work is part of their course of study.

The students work, on average, eight to 20 hours per week "in a variety of jobs and perform community service as part of an aligned curriculum," wrote author Jocelyn Pickford, a senior affiliate with HCM Strategists. That money goes directly toward paying their tuition, and many students grhttps://www.nasfaa.org/uploads/documents/NASFAA_2016_Advocacy_Online_Survey_Findings.pdfaduate with significantly less debt than their peers at other colleges. Between 2008 and 2013, for example, 20 percent fewer work college graduates than traditional college graduates took out student loans. And according to a report from the Work Colleges Consortium, the average debt for work college graduates who do borrow is also significantly lower: for those who graduated in 2010, the average debt was $12,121, compared with $21,740 for public colleges, and $27,710 for private nonprofit colleges.

"Work colleges do serve a small slice of the college-going population, and the model is complicated, requiring dedicated staff and careful management — no panacea for institutions seeking a quick and easy funding source," the report said. "But work college students often come from some of the most traditionally underprivileged, underrepresented, college-going — and college-graduating — groups in America."

"An examination of this model and the people who lead and succeed in these institutions is instructive for all who follow the education-to-work pipeline and its tangled implications for educational equity in the United States," the report continued.

Perhaps one of the most well-known work colleges is Berea College in Kentucky, which was founded in 1855. While the work college concept was created more than 100 years ago, the model was not recognized by the federal government until the 1992 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA). After that, work colleges began receiving their first allocations of federal funding through the FWS program.

Unlike other institutions that participate in the FWS programs, work colleges assess their students on their work assignments through an evaluation of skills and aptitudes, or other methods. As a result, these students receive a sort of work transcript to accompany their academic transcripts, the report said. And when students are in need of improvement on certain job-related skills, such as communication or writing, work supervisors collaborate with academic instructors to practice in class.

"The work college model aligns academic, work, and community service activities to provide students with a holistic experience that prepares them for the realities of working life after college," the report said.

NASFAA's own research on improving the FWS program found in a literature review that aligning FWS work with a student's academic major "and a focus on particular skill sets may help students find good jobs after college."

"Research shows FWS participants are more likely than other working students to be employed after six years," the review said.

While not every institution is suited to adopt the work college model, Pickford wrote, there are still lessons that can be applied to a broader population of postsecondary institutions, such as aligning liberal arts education with skills for employment, ensuring the work is meaningful, and providing more "touchpoints" for student support.

Likewise, NASFAA's national survey on best practices and innovative programs in FWS concluded institutions should examine best practices around student mentorship, as many existing innovative programs "had ties to mentorship."

"Mentorship can occur at several levels, with FWS students in community service/tutoring positions serving as mentors or FWS students themselves being mentored in their positions," the survey report said. "Given the research findings about the powerful influences of mentorship ... we feel this is a particularly important area of innovation to pursue."

Pickford concluded her report saying that while the specific work college model may not be the right fit for every institution, it could serve as a guideline for ways to better serve underrepresented student populations.

"Certainly, not every student pursuing postsecondary education has the financial need and the focus on swift employability that seem to draw some to today's work colleges," the report said. "But as the profile of the new ‘typical' undergraduate continues to evolve and as our country continues to promote opportunities for traditionally underserved students to attain credentials, explicitly connecting academic studies to the world of work may be the wave of the future."

 

Publication Date: 5/7/2018


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