Labor, learning and what lies ahead for work colleges

By Blake Richardson

Maja Olsson finds her cubby in the storage shed and puts on the red and black garden gloves she uses every day at work.

The junior English major walks outside with the rest of the crew, finds a spot at a table and gets to work with the blue Appalachian Mountains stenciled into the horizon behind her.

She is salvaging and sorting everything she can from the trash to recycle. She separates plastic, aluminum, paper, trash and glass items. She sorts stretchy plastic like bubble wrap; teracycle, which includes cellophane from cigarette boxes and energy bar wrappers; reusable items and compost. There’s even a pile for the pizza boxes that are too greasy to get recycled with the rest of the cardboard.

When she’s not sorting, she’s monitoring the compost, which is stored in giant blue containers under the roof of a shed. She climbs a muddy stepladder to take the temperature — it’s well over 100 degrees.

It’s decomposing, but she sometimes wonders if the compost is alive.

Olsson is paid minimum wage for her role in helping her college campus function. Her recycling crew is one of over 100 work crews that perform campus tasks at Warren Wilson College outside of Asheville.

Warren Wilson is one of seven work colleges in the U.S. The colleges have students participate in academics, service and work in order to teach the value of hard work and service while reducing college debt. At three of the colleges, qualified students can attend for free.

Warren Wilson is not one of those three. The 10 to 20 hours of work each week pays $7.25 an hour — hardly enough to foot the $33,970 tuition bill.

According to a 2016 report by CollegeBoard, national tuition rates are rising faster than financial aid and families’ college budgets are. For some work colleges, this change has heightened their school’s importance. But at Warren Wilson, rising tuition threatens the very nature of the school.

Setting the schools apart

As Olsson is leaving the preschool, a woman stops her. She wants to thank the recycling crew for their work, so she offers them a gift.

Olsson walks away with a white plastic container of homemade pimento cheese. It’s just one of several times she’s returned to her suite with food after work. But she has brought home more than just food. She has a collection of shirts and even a coat from the free store, where the recycling crew assembles goods like clothes, books and shoes that were thrown away.

Niels Wilson, a junior whose current work entails cleaning the science buildings on campus and serving as a teaching assistant, has similar stories. A few days ago, he got a free bike after reorganizing the room that the bike was stored in.

“I like how it’s been just really interesting jobs that I’ve had so far,” Wilson said.

Crews clean the dorms, do repairs, work in the dining halls, grow plants in the campus greenhouse and care for farm animals. There’s even a crew that studies herbs and can brew tea to cure your worst headache.

“We like to say that our colleges wouldn’t operate if our students didn’t show up,” said Robin Taffler, executive director of the Work Colleges Consortium.

Wilson met some of his best friends —including Olsson — through the work program.

Olsson likes that she runs into friends wherever she goes. When her mom visits her at school, friends run the guesthouse she stays in. Friends work in the library, make food in the dining hall and do repairs in the dorms.

The sense of community that Olsson, Wilson and Taffler all praised as a benefit of work colleges translates into a personal responsibility that guides students’ actions every day.

“You’re not going to trash things,” Olsson said. “Because you know it’s students, you know who’s going to have to clean it up for you.”

Valorie Coleman is the public relations director for College of the Ozarks, another work college. She said the students — including the eight who work in her office — set the school apart.

“Our students are the most hard-working, amazing students,” Coleman said. “They’re disciplined, they’re learning. … They’re graduating with work skills.”

Taffler said even after graduation, students maintain this attitude. She has noticed more students at work colleges graduate with a desire to serve the public good. And according to the Work College Consortium, students who graduate from work colleges are more likely to engage in community service post-graduation.

The sense of responsibility persists beyond the campus border.

Obstacles for the ‘outlier’ 

While this sense of community at work colleges is an added benefit, it is not the primary goal.

“A lot of the schools came into being to help underserved populations have a way to go to college,” Taffler said.

Three of those schools have stayed true to that goal — Alice Lloyd College, Berea College and College of the Ozarks. Because of the work program and other funds, every student at those colleges attends for free.

Taffler said most students at these colleges are the first in their family to receive a college education. The students come from low-income families and otherwise wouldn’t have been able to attend college — especially not today. According to a Goldman Sachs report, college tuition prices are so high that degrees from schools ranking in the bottom 25 percent are not worth the money.

Rising tuition poses a new obstacle in Warren Wilson’s ability to stay true to the mission. Now, students are better off not participating in the work program at all if they want to save money.

Wilson and Olsson agreed that this significantly discourages students from continuing in the work program.

“It is cheaper to not be in the work program and live off campus,” Olsson said. “In some ways it’s frustrating because you’re paying to do this.”

The federal regulations determining what qualifies as a work college were made law in 1992. Before then, work colleges had mild contact with each other, Taffler said. But now, the schools’ relationships have grown; they do research together and even hold annual conference with some students from each college in the fall.

The collaboration emphasizes Warren Wilson’s differences.

For Warren Wilson, the work program has evolved to focusing on owning up to privilege. Olsson said participating in the work program is about appreciating the blessing of an education and putting in the work to earn it. But at other work colleges, the work program is the foundation of the school’s existence.

This is why Taffler calls Warren Wilson an “outlier” from the other work colleges.

“Students go to Berea College because they want an education,” Taffler said. “And the only way they’re going to get it is if they work.”

Sticking to the mission

College of the Ozarks never strayed from the mission.

“I’ve really never been at an institution that understood mission and vision as well as C of O,” said Valorie Coleman, the college’s public relations director. “That drives everything we do.”

Coleman has no doubt that the college will continue to uphold its tradition of affordable education. The school covers costs through the work program, scholarships, donations and a $460 million endowment.

“That has been ingrained in how we organized the institution and run the institution for its entire history,” she said.

Berea, which was founded in 1855 as the first interracial college in the South, has also been able to uphold its goals despite rising tuition.

The college funds its students’ tuition through the work program, scholarships such as Pell Grants, the school’s endowment and an additional $4.5 million in donations each year, said Tim Jordan, media and news manager for Berea.

Berea has always been selective, and rising tuition has only made the applicant pool grow, Taffler said.

Coleman echoed that change. She said College of the Ozarks has grown from 1,452 last year to 1,512 this year with additional housing.

“If there were no limit to the number of students we could accommodate, we’d probably have 20,000,” Coleman said.

Coleman said she regularly receives calls from other schools seeking advice on how to implement aspects of the work program into their college, and several schools are in the process of becoming federally recognized work colleges.

Warren Wilson has already changed substantially. And in many ways, the changes have been positive. The college started as the Asheville Farm School to educate boys in the Appalachian Mountains. Since then, Warren Wilson has become a four-year college with a master’s program in creative writing. Eighty percent of the students are not from North Carolina, and 62 percent are women.

But as the school moves forward into the future, a gray area looms: How will the college stay true to the goal of affordability that was integral to its founding?

An uncertain future

“It’s amazing how something so simple can taste so good,” Olsson says as she eats bread and cheese at her favorite spot by the river on Warren Wilson’s campus.

It’s hard to be unhappy at a place with giant grassy hills perfect for winter sledding, forests with salamanders you can study in science class and baby cows and pigs that enter the world in campus stables each year.

The uniqueness of Warren Wilson is evident when you first step on campus. The emphasis on sustainability, sense of community and heightened work ethic in the student body sets the school apart from other colleges.

But is that enough?

Coleman is confident in College of the Ozarks’ future because the school’s president is dedicated to maintaining the school’s traditions. He recently assigned each of the vice presidents to focus on upholding one of the school’s five goals: academic, vocational, Christian, cultural and patriotic.

“He made sure that that legacy was safeguarded,” she said.

Warren Wilson’s future is more uncertain. It entails reaching a balance between making adjustments necessary to the school’s survival and staying true to the tradition that brought them here.

Change the mission? Or change the school?

Edited by Ryan Wilusz