When students graduate from Sterling College, a career college in Northern Vermont, they leave with more than a degree, according to Josh Bossin, professor of outdoor education and associate dean of work-experience learning. They leave with a comprehensive resume.
“Being able to try different jobs while you’re still in school is like breaking the line of life experiences,” Bossin said. “They will land wherever they find passion.
Career colleges, while rare, have existed for over 100 years and have maintained a small but steady presence in the US since before the Civil War.
Qualify for a vocational collegethe institution must be non-profit, offer four-year degrees, and provide students with employment through a program of work and educational services that will contribute to their education.
Sterling is one of 10 institutions designated as a career college in the US. Others include Berea College, Paul Quinn College, and Warren Wilson College.
The work school designation is separate from the institution offering federal work study, a program based on the student’s financial aid status. Work colleges require all residential students to work on their programs for at least five hours per week or 80 hours over the course of a semester.
Sterling offers environmentally focused bachelor’s degrees and is the smallest career college with just 126 students in autumn 2021. According to Bossin, the work students do is an extension of what they learn in the classroom. Each paper sets clear learning objectives and working students are closely supervised by either faculty or staff.
“If we have a student studying ecology, they may have a job working or managing a science lab on campus,” Bossin said. “They’re able to do work that reinforces the topics they’re learning in the classroom.”
Sterling allocates work appointments by semester, after which students can re-apply or apply for a different placement. According to Bossin, some students try four to five jobs in their first two years before finding a good match.
When a student works at Sterling, they get paid in study credits that go directly into their account. The cost of tuition is $39,200 a year, but students in the work program typically pay between $1,000 and $3,500 per semester, according to Bossin, depending on what jobs and how many hours they work.
The tuition discount received is a significant enough difference to impact students’ lives, both in college and after they graduate, he said.
The difference is drawing attention from some higher education leaders. The cost of a college education is often at the center of debate the value of a university degree. And steps previously considered dramatic to address the cost of college— as a tuition reset and the state free college programs — are becoming more common.
At the forefront of the affordable college conversation, community colleges don’t always include work experience in education. They also cannot always offer students the option of earning a four-year degree.
So can vocational colleges provide a work-oriented model from which other institutions could borrow?
Adult students and the working college model
In November, the American Council on Education she issued a message detailing how career colleges could serve working students and post-traditional students—those age 25 or older who often work full-time, have military connections, and care for dependents.
The strengths of work schools—reduced or free tuition, work experience, and mentorship from college faculty and staff—have been found to address students’ concerns about the cost and real-world applicability of a college degree. Career colleges can also make adult students’ lives logistically easier by combining academics and work, the report said.
The intentional linking of learning, work and services is the most compelling part of the model, according to Luis Soares, director of learning and innovation at ACE and one of the authors of the report.
“There is a notion that work contributes to the quality of a person’s experience and character,” Soares said. By combining academics with work-based learning, students are able to build a strong educational foundation while still learning how to adapt to the ever-changing job market, he said.
But the vocational college model can also have disadvantages for adult students.
Most career colleges are located in rural areas and rely heavily on residential students, two things that working adults can have trouble fitting into their lives, Soares said. He added that their curriculum also seems to be aimed at younger students.
“Most of the emphasis of the work curriculum is toward the beginning of working life. And working adults tend to be people who have been working for some time without a college degree or maybe without any college credits,” Soares said.
At Sterling, 75% of students are 24 years of age or younger. However, according to Bossin, the college sees a significant number of non-traditional first-time students and those seeking a second degree. In the 2019–2020 academic year, one-fifth of Sterling’s students were non-traditional, the highest proportion among the nine career colleges studied by ACE.
Most of Sterling’s non-traditional students are commuters and are therefore not required to participate work-education-service program. However, according to Bossin, more than half of commuter students still connect. Although the program is optional, it’s often what draws students to Sterling, he said.
Work experience is almost as valuable to students and potential employers as a degree, Bossin said.
Another issue is the relative size of vocational colleges. Most vocational colleges have fewer than 1,000 students. The largest, College of the Ozarks in Missouri, has an enrollment of 1,479 for fall 2021.
The rarity of vocational colleges and their small enrollment means that only a handful of students nationwide can enroll. Between all 10 institutions, it is unlikely that a total of more than 7,000 students are enrolled at any given time. But scaling a job college may cause it to lose one of its strengths – a strong sense of community.
“Its size creates a cohort that lends itself to creating a community. So if you were 40,000 students, could you do that? It’s not clear that’s the way to go,” Soares said.
Based on interviews conducted by ACE, Soares recommended that career colleges trying to expand find ways to replicate the community they offered at their original size. For example, a career college with 300 students with an enrollment goal of 2,400 should continue to offer students cohorts of 300 or smaller. This would help maintain a sense of community during growth and allow students to face each other and professional mentors more.
Sterling could probably enroll more students if it chose to. In autumn 2021, the college accepted 41% of its applicants.
But Sterling likes the working model and everything that comes with it, Bossin said.
“We realized that we probably would have behaved this way even without the federal designation,” he said. “We put a lot of pride and energy into giving our students the autonomy and ability to take on real responsibilities that have significant consequences.”
That mentality is what Soares says serves job schools well. He said higher education is still working to better integrate formal education and people’s working lives.
“Work colleges, while not having all the answers, have been grappling with these challenges for a long time,” Soares said. “We’re at the beginning of it, and I suspect that by the end, we’ll see colleges and the workplace transform significantly. And some of those end elements already exist in colleges today.”