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New Research Shows Benefits of Work Study

Student employment, second only to class attendance, is the most universal experience of American college students.

More students work than participate in sports or clubs, live in a residence hall or own a car. A recently concluded study funded by the Lumina Foundation for Education suggests that contrary to being a distraction, a college job can be a good thing when “work” is part of an institution’s educational program.

Conducted by the nations’ six Work Colleges –schools where all students take part in a comprehensive work-learning program – the study found that students are engaged more deeply in the culture of the college, and as a consequence, graduates believe the quality of their education is enhanced. Students also perceived experiences at work as true college experiences that matter.

The findings have broad importance for higher education, says Dennis Jacobs, Ph.D., director of the Work College Consortium (WCC) and the study’s co-principal investigator.

“Nearly 80 percent of college students have a job. Student work is of growing importance for policy makers and administrators. At the work colleges, it was found that student work can express institutional values and strengthen institutional mission.”

For the three-year collaborative study, conducted 2002-2005, research teams from each college both designed individual studies that mirrored the resources and special interest of their college. Each team conducted research to explore institution specific programs and values that provided insight into the project’s central question “In what ways do students at work colleges perceive the relationship between work and learning?”

At Berea College for example, where students hold jobs in more than 135 different campus departments and in community service organizations, the study found that students' appreciation for the role of work in life is greatly enhanced by the time they graduate.

Once hundreds of colleges in the United States featured work as part of their educational and financial-aid offerings, with origins in the Manual Labor Movement of the early 1800s. Today, there are just six that meet the federal criteria as “work colleges” because they are residential, require all students to work at a college job, and integrate students’ work with their liberal arts-based education – Alice Lloyd College and Berea College in Kentucky, Blackburn College in Illinois, College of the Ozarks in Missouri, Sterling College in Vermont, and Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. The colleges form the Work Colleges Consortium, headquartered in Berea, Ky., and the entity that conducted the study funded by the Lumina Foundation.

While each college is distinctive, all emphasize the dignity of work; an ethic of service; the importance of engagement in society; learning through work as well as academic study; debt reduction and career development.

Quoting from the report, Ian Robertson, Dean of Work at Warren Wilson College, says “As work colleges that once more quietly expounded the virtues of work done in a setting where all resident students are required to participate, we can now speak with greater certainty and increased clarity about its benefits.”

The study also was undertaken to provide a template for examination of student work beyond the walls of the work colleges, say its authors.

“The tensions addressed by the work colleges are in many cases the same ones most undergraduates face on their own throughout U.S. higher education – without institutional structuring, consideration, or reflection.”

The final report, Work, Learning, and Belonging at the Six U.S. Work Colleges: Results of the Work Colleges Consortium Collaborative Research Project 2002-2005 includes background and a review of the research on each campus, highlighting connections with higher education research literature. The report can be found on the Work Colleges Consortium Website, http://www.workcolleges.org/research.htm .

Directing the overall project with Jacobs were Beth Raps, Ph.D., an independent researcher who served as Project Manager and Co-Principal investigator; and Jane Jensen, Ph.D., a faculty member in educational policy in higher education at the University of Kentucky who served as a consultant.

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