At College of the Ozarks, Students Work Off Tuition Debt

One Midwestern college is fighting off the specter of lifelong debt for its students by providing them the opportunity to work in return for tuition.

College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, Missouri is nicknamed “Hard Work U.” Ninety percent of its students receive tuition aid, and no student has to pay for tuition if he or she cannot afford it.

Earning Their Way 

Those attending College of the Ozarks can receive federal and state support such as Pell grants, but they are not allowed to take out federal loans. They are expected to work at the college 15 hours a week, plus two 40-hour weeks per year when school is not in session. What they earn is applied to the $18,700 in tuition (for the academic year 2017–18). The school covers any remaining tuition charges.

The students are not directly paying for their tuition under the college’s plan. Instead, they commit themselves to work on campus in return for scholarship support. Donors around the country finance the scholarships.

Students are responsible for their own room and board, which will cost $7,100 in 2017–18. Approximately 800 students who can’t cover room and board spend the summer working at the school to raise the necessary funds. Other students who want to earn money for their meals and lodging can rent rooms at the college during the summer and work in nearby towns, such as Branson, Missouri.

Addressing a Need

Originally founded as a high school in 1906, the college has always had a mission of providing education for low-income students from the Ozarks, a hilly region in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. More than 80 percent of the 1,440-person student body comes from the Ozarks.

Marci Linson, vice president of patriotic activities and dean of admissions, says the college grew because education opportunities in the region were limited. 

“We are a Christian school started by a Presbyterian missionary who saw that there was a need for education beyond what was available in public schools then,” Linson said. “At that time, high school was ‘advanced’ education, but as time progressed, the school became a junior college, and then the first four-year class graduated in 1967.”

studentloans_small At College of the Ozarks, Students Work Off Tuition Debt College

Promoting Self-Responsibility

The college promotes Christian values and patriotism and tries to create habits that will serve graduates well throughout their lives, Linson says.

“If you grabbed a random group of students out of a class, you would find their clothes neat and clean and in good repair, no facial piercings or tattoos, and none would look as if they had just crawled out of bed,” Linson said. “You can’t say that about all campuses today.”

Linson says the school conducts all its operations on principles of self-responsibility. For example, it builds new buildings only when it has cash in hand.

The college’s distinctive philosophy enables it to obtain financial support from sympathetic donors around the country who want to support schools that provide access to low-income students. Its endowment was $442.3 million in 2015, putting it in a league with schools such as St. Olaf College in Minnesota ($455.5 million in 2015) and Creighton University in Nebraska ($449.4 million in 2015).

Pros and Cons

Mark Kantrowitz, president of MK Consulting and author of more than 100 student financial aid policy analysis papers, says Ozark’s approach is not “scalable” for most private colleges.

“Two months of full-time work yields $2,000 to $4,000, hardly enough to replace loans,” Kantrowitz said. “So, realistically, these ‘work colleges’ have generous alumni who contribute enough money that the current students do not have to borrow. That’s similar to the six-dozen colleges with generous ‘no loans’ financial aid policies.”

Joseph Bast, president and CEO of The Heartland Institute, which publishes School Reform News, says he is impressed by the college’s work requirement.

“I am certainly partial to a school that requires students to work for their tuition, based on my own college experience,” Bast said. “Having to work for tuition, I put a high value on every single course I took at the University of Chicago. I did all the required readings, and more, and because I took only two courses a quarter, I had time to do so and the mental ‘bandwidth’ to do deep dives into the subject matter.

“It’s an experience I believe nearly all college students would benefit from, though of course I wouldn’t impose my preference on anyone,” Bast said.

Jane S. Shaw (janeshaw5966@gmail.com) is School Reform News’ higher education editor.