Warren Wilson students carry out
their chores earlier this spring.

snow on warren Wilson College’s campus is an unusual sight — not only because western North Carolina rarely gets more than a dusting, but because students are the ones driving the plows. Students also prepare the cafeteria food, staff the administrative offices, clean the classroom buildings, and maintain the vehicles at this liberal arts college tucked into the Blue Ridge Mountains.

But unlike many colleges, where the students with jobs are the ones who couldn’t otherwise afford tuition, Warren Wilson College requires all residential students to work 15 hours a week, regardless of family income. They earn minimum wage, and the school treats their yearly earnings as a credit against tuition, which in 2009-2010 will be $24,195. Although work programs can save money for both students (through the tuition credit) and the institution (by reducing the need for some staff), the rationale for the concept is far more educational than financial, says college president William “Sandy” Pfeiffer. At Warren Wilson, work isn’t a means of purchasing an education. It is an integral part of an education.

“In order for you to be studying, someone has to clean the toilets,” says Pfeiffer. “That can be you, or someone else paid to do it. Warren Wilson argues that there’s learning that occurs when it’s you.”

Warren Wilson is one of seven “work colleges” in the United States, all but one in the South.

The geographic outlier is Sterling College, in Vermont; the most famous may be Berea College in Kentucky, which serves only low-income students. Warren Wilson is open to applicants regardless of socioeconomic background, and it currently draws its 900 students from nearly all 50 states, plus 10 countries.

The college traces its history back to a school for “mountain boys” in their teens and 20s, founded in 1894. The Asheville Farm School became Warren Wilson Vocational Junior College, named for an early 20th-century leader in the Presbyterian Church, in 1942. (It upgraded to a four-year institution in 1967.) In its earliest days, the college maintained its work program out of economic necessity rather than grand pedagogical notions. Students and faculty alike shared the physical work required to keep the school in operation. In recent decades, Warren Wilson dropped its labor expectation for faculty, added a community-service requirement for students, and reaffirmed its commitment to the educational value of work. Today, every student works, studies, and volunteers, a blended experience the school calls “the triad.”

Fans of the work college concept — including Richard Freeland, the new commissioner of higher education of Massachusetts — believe it can instill a sense of responsibility, teach life skills, and foster citizenship. They caution that the work college model isn’t easy to replicate, but say there are lessons here for colleges in Massachusetts willing to radically re-imagine what it means to educate students for life.

When asked about the value of work, almost everyone at Warren Wilson immediately cites the same benefit. Ian Robertson, the genial, white-haired “dean of work,” defines it as a “sweat equity” in their surroundings that teaches them citizenship.

“Students know that if they throw trash down, they or one of their roommates has to pick it up,” Robertson says. “And if they’re seen, someone will turn around and say, ‘Hey, who do you think is going to pick it up?’ There are no workers here to pick up after the students.”

He pauses, and then rephrases the sentiment emphatically. “There are no workers who did not have the privilege of going to college picking up after those who do.”

When students first arrive at Warren Wilson’s (very clean) campus, Robertson assigns them to a crew. Most freshmen end up in the dining hall or on “Heavy-Duty,” the crew in charge of sanitation. After a semester, they can apply for other positions. Some choose a path that integrates their studies and their work, like the environment studies majors who gravitate toward the garden, or the theater enthusiast who does her 15 hours in the school’s costume shop. Others, like A.J. Nichols, opt to keep them separate. “I’m a philosophy major and I’m a mechanic,” Nichols says, as he leans into the engine of a school van.

Robertson cites several research studies showing that part-time work can enhance, rather than hinder, a student’s academic performance, provided the job requires less than 20 hours a week. Sara Methven, a senior who came to Warren Wilson from Brookline High School, believes work has helped her ward off procrastination. “I have a friend at Columbia who has class from 9:30 to 10:30 and 2 to 4,” says the chatty, dark-haired education major. “I don’t understand that. Having all that free time…” Methven’s voice trails off. “I’d just want to hang out. The work has helped me with time management.”

Not for everyone

Unlike the work-study experience at traditional colleges, work is a part of the school’s fabric here. The school is responsible for making sure students can fit work, academics, and service into their schedules, and professors recognize all three as integral parts of their students’ lives. Still, about 30 percent of incoming freshmen do not return for a sophomore year at Warren Wilson, a rate of attrition that is a few percentage points higher than the national average. The school has taken something of a “if you can’t fix it, feature it” approach to the issue. The motto on all promotional literature is, “We’re not for everyone… but then, maybe you’re not everyone.”

One student says she suspects some applicants visit Warren Wilson, see the large number of shaggy-haired, Birkenstock-wearing kids, and imagine they can “just hang out for four years” in a sort of organic, hippie fantasy. Those students, she says, don’t stay, while those who do stay exhibit a kind of adult ownership in their surroundings, as well as confidence that they have already mastered the balancing act required by the adult world.

Kids joke that the WWC on their sweatshirts stands for “We Work Constantly,” but, in fact, the jobs seem to vary in intensity. On a Thursday afternoon in February, students on the farm crew were shoveling manure into the pigsty nearly until sunset, but a crew in charge of maintaining a science building appeared mostly to be socializing. Students boast that they run the school, but adults confess it’s a little more complicated than that. Several staff members laugh when they describe how time-consuming it can be to, say, get a window repaired, since they rely on student labor for all but the most advanced construction work. Then there’s the work of finding meaningful jobs for everyone in a way that accommodates the academic schedule.

Scott Fair, a gray-bearded former carpenter and artist, supervises “Heavy-Duty,” the crew who cleans the bathrooms and takes out the trash. Getting these essential tasks done with student laborers can be challenging at times. Most students aren’t thrilled to land on his crew; he has high turnover. And because of the academic schedule, he gets his staff in 90-minute time chunks. “It’s not a model of efficiency, but after a while you get used to it,” says Fair. He said that of every 10-student crew (and he’ll have four or five crews a semester), he usually has two or three students who leap into the work, a few who take a little coaxing but then develop a good attitude, and one or two he will have to keep an eye on all semester.

After five years working at Warren Wilson, Fair has become passionate about the school’s mission and sees his supervisory role as, essentially, a pedagogical one. “If you learn how to get up and come to a job you don’t particularly like, and do it with a good attitude, you’re ahead of a lot of kids,” he says, adding that most students are able to meet that challenge. “When these students are adults, they’ll have jobs, and be dropping off kids at school and cutting the grass. All the things you do to have a life. The kids who go to a school where all you do is go to class and then drink…” Fair shakes his head. “Work college students are better-rounded.”

Pfeiffer, the school’s president, believes the challenge of making work educational is what keeps other schools from reaping the benefits. “It’s a hard row to hoe,” says the Amherst College alumnus, who became Warren Wilson’s president in 2006. It means finding and investing in supervisors who both know their trade and know how to teach it. It means getting faculty on board. And it means convincing students to get up at 8 in the morning to work even though at many colleges they can sleep until noon.

Sara Methven came to Warren
Wilson from Brookline High.

While having students do the more menial tasks at school saves money, the more challenging (and popular) crews like forestry, organic gardening, and farming cost money in
the form of extra supervisors, safety training, and time lost
due to inexperience.

Unfortunately for the bottom line, it’s the more glamorous jobs that attract students to Warren Wilson in the first place, says Pfeiffer. And some educators say that students get maximum benefits when their work is linked to study, as is the case with all the environmental studies majors working in the garden.

Richard Freeland, who became commissioner of higher education in Massachusetts in January, calls himself “a passionate believer” in the integration of work and learning. He would like to see more of the work college spirit in the Bay State but believes that, in addition to logistical challenges and faculty reluctance, plain old snobbery keeps the idea from catching on here.

“It’s not what the elite colleges do,” he says. “Most of higher education follows the leaders, and everyone wants to look as much like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton as they can. The fact that they aren’t doing it says to everyone else down the pecking order, ‘We shouldn’t be doing it.’”

Freeland distinguishes between two types of work: unskilled labor, like cleaning and trash removal, which he says can teach responsibility and have a maturing effect; and labor connected to a student’s coursework, which can teach responsibility and offer opportunities for intellectual growth. Freeland says the co-op program at Northeastern University, where he was president between 1996 and 2006, falls in the second category. “When a close relationship is made between the work experience and the classroom experience, there can be tremendous intellectual benefits,” he says.

Like Fair, Warren Wilson’s janitorial supervisor, Freeland suspects that work college students are better served than their peers at Harvard, never mind which diploma the world admires more. “The skills you need to be an effective citizen, or worker, go far beyond the intellectual skills we nurture in the classroom,” says Freeland. “Therefore, I believe colleges that integrate work and classroom are actually offering their students a far more complete education, and sending them out more prepared into the adult world than colleges just offering a straight classroom experience.”

As Freeland assumes his new role overseeing higher education in Massachusetts, he says he would like to see more integration of work and the classroom in the Commonwealth’s colleges, be it through internships, apprenticeships, or simply asking students to do more of the work of maintaining their school.

“I’m a missionary on this topic,” he says.