If students want to graduate with little or no debt, then they owe it to themselves — and their parents — to explore every possible opportunity to save money on tuition. Work colleges are worth exploring, because attending one increases a student’s chances of graduating debt free.

What They Are

In a nut shell, work colleges are post-secondary schools that have mandatory work-study programs for their students.

College Is Expensive

The United States has seven work colleges, which are part of the Work College Consortium. They are Alice Lloyd College in Pippa Passes, Kentucky; Berea College in Berea, Kentucky; Blackburn College in Carlinville, Illinois; College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, Missouri; Ecclesia College in Springdale, Arkansas; Sterling College in Craftsbury Common, Vermont; and Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina.

Situated in or near mountain ranges or in rural areas, work colleges are marked by small enrollment. For example, Berea College, with 1,570 students, has the largest full-time enrollment of all the schools in the consortium. Sterling College has the smallest with 125 full-time students. But these institutions shouldn’t be sold short. They have a lot to offer.

What They Offer

Some of the schools in the consortium have major courses of study that are as diverse as other colleges and universities throughout the US. Students at the College of the Ozarks, for example, can major in history, English, computer science, sociology or accounting. Ecclesia College has associate degree programs and an online degree program, but its major courses of study are limited. Although students at Ecclesia can major in business administration or sports management, all other majors are more theological. Each school’s academic offering is unique. So, students who are seriously considering the work college option will have to do some careful research.

The same is true for the schools’ athletic programs. Depending on the college, a student could have the option of playing basketball, soccer, baseball, softball or volleyball or participating in less traditional sports like shooting, golf and dance.

They have clubs and social groups like student government organizations, theater clubs or choirs. Some schools have their own campus newspapers and/or blogs.

What They Cost

Believe it or not, the tuition costs at work colleges are comparable to those incurred by students in other public and private colleges and universities around the US. Depending on the school, students could work anywhere from 10 to 20 hours a week, and each college has its own selection of jobs for students to do. Many of them are what you would expect like working in the dining hall, the library, as an administrative assistant or assistant in a computer lab. Other jobs are a bit more non-traditional like working as a greenhouse and hoop house manager or plowing a field.

Thanks to the work programs, students can save a significant amount of money on tuition. Students at Blackburn College, for instance, can earn $2, 640 in “work credit,” which gets subtracted from their $18, 710 tuition for the year — if they’re full-time, resident students — for a final balance of $16, 070 for their first year. In the second year, they receive $2,790, and every year after that, they receive $3,300 in work credit. Students at the College of the Ozarks can earn over $4,000 toward a nearly $18,000 annual tuition.

Although the money earned in the mandatory work program helps, for some students, that still isn’t enough. So, of course, work colleges also offer financial aid, including grants and academic and athletic scholarships, such as the merit-based scholarship that’s available to students on Ecclesia College’s shooting team. At Berea College, every four-year student receives a need-based tuition scholarship. With tuition scholarship and the money earned through the work program, some Berea College students actually graduate 100% debt free. Without the scholarship and the money earned through the work program, a student could end up paying more than $24,000 each year.

The Pros and Cons

Applying to a work college is no different from applying to any other college or university. Students have to fill out applications, gather transcripts and complete FAFSA forms. They have to follow each school’s particular admissions guidelines and meet the appropriate deadlines.

Work colleges are a perfect fit for students who thrive on small class sizes and accessible professors, staff and advisors. Because they are so far removed from civilization, they’re also a great fit for students who like being around a lot of open air and sunshine. Students who are looking for a traditional campus experience wouldn’t like attending a work college, nor would students who want to be close to the hustle and bustle of a big city.

One of the biggest benefits of attending a work college is the practical work experience students get. Employers want to hire college graduates with work experience. Whether they worked in the campus book store or mopped floors as custodians, work college students graduate with soft skills like time management, leadership and communication that employers value as much as technical skill. It’s a shame there are so few.

If more colleges in the US, especially those in or near large metropolitan areas, belonged to the Work College Consortium, college enrollment might increase, and more job seeking college graduates would be prepared to face the real world.

Given today’s economy, even if a student decides to attend a work college, tuition can still cost over $20,000 a year. These small, private institutions, nestled in out-of-the-way areas, aren’t for everyone. But what makes work colleges special – and worth considering – is that in addition to helping students save money on tuition, they provide a type of real-world education that many of today’s college students don’t even realize they need.