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NYTimes Offers Better Ways to Do College

June 24, 2019

There Are Better Ways to Do College“, an article by NYTimes writer Alice Lloyd, profiles a handful of colleges in the United States that offer credits for hands on work. Here’s Ms. Lloyd’s of the so-called “work colleges”:

There are nearly 10 of them: Private four-year schools known as work colleges, where students put in mandatory hours each week as a complement to their course loads. Through a combination of grants, donations, endowments and hourly wages, work colleges ask for less in fees than any comparable schools and leave their graduates with lighter debt loads. They also keep every student meaningfully occupied, in roles that range from chaplain to dishwasher.

It’s almost too easy, once you’ve visited one of the campuses, to slip into contemplation of what work colleges have that most of the rest of life lacks. They serve a deeper need than affordable education. They harness the power of purposeful work, compounded by collegiate social pressure. (If the bathroom crew misses a shift, their dorm mates will notice.)

They also do a great job of honoring their origins: Each one rose to meet its area’s need for a college that students wouldn’t have to fund in the conventional manner, and the model they landed on worked well enough that relatively little has changed.

In an era where college is promoted as the key to earning higher salaries, a world where the federal government is planning to rate colleges based on the earnings of its graduates, the notion of harnessing the power of purposeful work  and engaging each and every student in work that keeps them meaningfully occupied seems quaint and idealistic. But the world we need in the future is not the world we have today. The world we need in the future would place a higher value on communitarianism than libertarianism and a higher value on meaningful work than highly remunerative work. Ms. Lloyd concludes her report with these paragraphs:

Work colleges aren’t actually going to save the world. To keep tuition low or nonexistent, they often rely on restricted grants, to the necessary exclusion of most Americans. And even students who meet the standards for guaranteed tuition at the schools that offer it have to qualify academically. They tend to be tightly local, too. Not all of the schools aggregate data year to year, but College of the Ozarks prides itself on standing as a barrier against the Ozarks’ brain drain.

“They go back to teach in the schools in the communities,” Mr. Bolger boasted of his flock. “They work for firms in their communities, they serve in social services in the communities that they came from.” Alice Lloyd said it sends 80 percent of graduates to work in the same Appalachian counties from which it almost exclusively recruits.

Trying to figure out what makes work colleges work — and how the rest of the world can work more that way — has the flavor of a soul-saving mission. I’d say work colleges do their part in the national project by teaching students something the rest of us often don’t learn before it’s too late — essentially that to survive, a community needs each one of its members to pick up a shovel and participate.

I disagree with Ms. Lloyd. I think that work colleges actually COULD save those corners of the world where the services of college graduates are needed but are “unaffordable” because of local economic conditions. As one who worked in rural regions for much of my career as a school superintendent, I heard about, read about, and witnessed the “brain drain” that the Ozarks experienced…. and cannot help but think that there were many of those who fled their roots in Norther New England and Appalachia because they could not find employment in their chosen profession because the school districts and social service agencies “couldn’t afford” them. Western Maryland, New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont would all envy having a college in their region that had 80% of its graduates working in the same counties they recruited from… and I daresay that many of those who left their hometowns would come back if there was work for them. Maybe some of the small struggling state colleges and small liberal arts colleges could help themselves and the communities where they are located if they adopted a work college model.

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