The Case for College Work Programs

To increase student access and affordability, and improve the business model, a college might want to establish a work program for all its students. Lyle D. Roelofs describes the benefits.

October 4, 2016
Berea College student working on grounds crew

As colleges and universities across the country grapple with challenges of access and affordability and worry about the sustainability of their business models, some institutions are considering whether or not to establish a program of work for all students.

Berea College, where I am president, has offered employment to all of its students for more than a century, and it was one of the founding members of the Work Colleges Consortium. This federally recognized organization includes eight residential liberal arts institutions that provide a universal work experience as part of their educational programing. The work program has become integral to the Berea experience, and it might well be worth consideration at other colleges and universities, too.

The Berea Program

We often say at Berea that we do not just admit students, we hire them. In consequence, we have 1,600 intelligent, motivated part-time employees. All of the WCC institutions receive federal grant funding; at Berea, we use a portion of that to pay students in the form of a nontaxable hourly wage, which increases with added experience and job responsibilities.

The students’ earnings can be used for general living expenses as well as to help contribute to the cost of their attendance. (Although no student pays tuition at Berea, they and their families are expected to contribute as determined by the FAFSA to fees and living expenses.) The compensation earned through the work program thus helps to minimize debt for our students. About a third of our students graduate entirely debt-free, with the rest borrowing an average of less than $7,000.

The students in the main are very capable workers. The majority start in positions involving working with their hands, in food service, as custodians, on our farm (one of the oldest continuously operating student educational farms in the United States), in our students crafts industries and the like. Starting with these assignments enables them to experience and value the dignity of manual labor well done. In fact, our founder, the Southern abolitionist Reverend John G. Fee, believed in the role education can play in promoting social mobility, and to that end, he saw work as necessary for blurring the distinctions of class. He believed as well that the values of independence, industry and innovation -- such crucial elements of the college learning experience -- are best built on a foundation of productive, necessary work. These beliefs still ring true at Berea.

Progressing through their college career, some students stay with assignments involving manual labor, usually taking on broadened responsibilities, including supervision of other students, while others shift to work that relates to their career interests. For example, future accounting professionals work in the college business office, graduate school-bound students often become teaching assistants, and students interested in education can work in the Child Development Lab, campus day care center and early childhood education facility. Students can explore the various options at our annual Labor Day celebration, which serves as a large collegewide job fair.

The WCC rules and the effectiveness of an educational work program require universal participation. All Berea students work at least 10 hours per week, and we have additional positions of up to five hours per week for those who desire to earn more money or wish to have additional learning experiences. For example, a student worker in my office spends five hours a week maintaining and updating the website but also holds a 10-hour position in our athletic facility.

A work program requires supervision by paid employees -- not only many staff but also teaching faculty. Since the work experience is an important part of each student’s learning, Berea staff are much more involved in the educational program than at institutions where only some of the students work and work is not intentionally integrated into the learning experience. That’s why we consider our staff to be members of the general faculty and support and reward their contributions to the education of students.

Additionally, the element of learning through work needs to be supported by an extensive infrastructure, including evaluations, a labor transcript (which graduates can submit when applying for jobs), the possibility of labor probation and even suspension for those students who are not progressing in meeting their responsibilities. Because it is so integral to the students’ learning at Berea, we also include the work program as part of our academic program in the decennial institutional reaccreditation process.

Many Benefits

Along with work and educational benefits, our program teaches other life skills. For example, many of our students have not had paid work positions before, and most have not had a bank account. We require all student paychecks to be direct deposited so that every student learns to manage a checking account, a first step in our more comprehensive financial literacy program.

We also encourage philanthropy. We promote our payroll deduction program to the students, and more than half make small contributions from their biweekly checks to the college’s annual fund. In fact, their participation rate exceeds that of faculty, staff and alumni giving overall.

Casual observation also suggests that our campus and buildings seem to be better treated by students than at institutions where regular employees are responsible for upkeep. It’s a little different to make a mess or damage the facilities if one of your fellow students will be cleaning it up or fixing what you did.

The Berea education is a transformative one for our students, and the work program contributes to that in many ways. Close bonds develop between students and labor supervisors, whether faculty or staff, thus allowing for enhanced mentorship. Many alumni credit their work experiences as having been crucial to acquiring work skills, getting first jobs and advancing professionally. In fact, many have shared with me that it was their work experience on the campus that ended up having the greatest impact on their professional lives.

One older alumnus, for instance, told me about his work assignment in the restaurant of the Historic Boone Tavern Hotel, a campus inn that the college owns. At that time, we had a hotel management program overseen by Richard Haugen, a graduate of Cornell University’s program, who enjoys legendary status among the alumni who worked under him. He had introduced a signature dish, chicken flakes in a bird’s nest, on the restaurant menu. The eponymous nest, made of shredded potatoes, shaped appropriately and fried, needs to be made ahead of time, and this particular alum had the assignment of arriving in the kitchen at 4 a.m. to make the nests. One morning he overslept, and chicken flakes were off the menu for the rest of that day. Haugen made sure this was an experience never forgotten by the alum, who told me that in 40-some years of employment, he never again arrived late for work.

Perhaps one of the most important benefits of the program, however, is that it allows our students to become deeply engaged in their learning environment while encouraging pride, confidence and respect for all manner of work. I saw that four years ago, when I was being interviewed on campus for Berea’s presidency. On that visit, the questions I wanted to answer had to do with the claims the college makes about its mission and identity and whether they were genuine. A work program makes for good press, but it would be easy to imagine that it would be mostly about PR.

The visit included a campus tour. As we entered Presser Hall, the home of our music program, a young man was emerging from the first-floor restroom, pushing a cleaning cart and removing his rubber gloves. His demeanor, which I took in at a glance, was eloquent testimony. I am sure he had not enjoyed cleaning that bathroom, but his bearing was one of accomplishment and purpose. He had learned to clean bathrooms well and found satisfaction in doing a good job. That was the moment I decided that if offered the position I would be coming to Berea College.


Lyle D. Roelofs is president of Berea College.


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