Work colleges in the spotlight as students seek ROI

Work colleges are providing a learning model that some students view as a good way to gain practical experience before graduation, Timothy Pratt writes for the Hechinger Report.

In the work college model, labor is an essential part of the curriculum, Pratt explains. The model differs from traditional internships or work-study programs in that full-time students are required to work and their work is evaluated by supervisors, Pratt writes.

Right now only a few colleges, each with less than 2,000 students, follow this model, Pratt reports. But the approach is gaining new interest because of today's concerns around student debt and the return on investment (ROI) of a degree, he writes.

In fact, only 44% of students who attended a four-year work college between 2008 and 2013 needed loans to help pay for their education, compared with 53% and 64% of students at traditional public and private colleges, respectively, Pratt reports. And according to Matt Goff, a dean of the work college at Silver Lake College in Wisconsin, work colleges also have high student retention rates.

Many of the students have memorable work experiences and develop strong relationships in the process, Pratt writes.

For example, Clare Cameron is a senior at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina who works on a farm and manages a farmer's market. Working on the farm gives her "on-the-ground" experience with crops that she wouldn't get if she were only studying plant genetics in a lab, she says.

Recent Warren Wilson graduate Zui Kumar Reddy says the most valuable part of her experience at a work college was the student-supervisor relationship. During her time working in a mechanic's garage, she says she called her supervisor her best friend.

And according to a report from Work Colleges Consortium, over two-thirds of graduates from Paul Quinn College, a historically black college and the first urban work college, said the college prepared them for their current jobs. Lynn Morton, Warren Wilson College's president, credits their strong track record of employment outcomes back to the college's focus on experiential learning (Pratt, PBS NewsHour, 8/1).

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