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Paul Quinn College, a historically black college in Dallas, has found a way for its students to pay as little as $2,300 in tuition next year. Starting in the fall, everyone on campus will work. They’ll grow vegetables, cook meals, sweep the halls and answer phones, keeping the campus running for cheap and, in turn, getting the chance to graduate with minimal debt.

Paul Quinn’s idea isn’t new, but it is rare. The college is taking steps to become one of a handful of work colleges, a type of school that requires all students, regardless of their financial situation, to work in exchange for steeply discounted tuition. There are just seven work colleges recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, most of them in rural cities. Three of them, Alice Lloyd College in Pippa Passes, Kentucky; Berea College in Berea, Kentucky; and College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, Missouri, charge no tuition.

The setup allows students to graduate with far less debt than they might accumulate attending a traditional college, even with financial aid. Students graduating from work colleges in 2010 owed an average of $12,121, according to the Work Colleges Consortium, which advises work colleges. That’s less than half of the national average for that year, $25,250.

A student at College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, Missouri, works in landscaping for her campus job.

The jobs students do at work colleges aren’t trivial. Matt Fender, a junior at College of the Ozarks, lives in a dormitory that, as part of a construction team, he helped build.

“My days start early, and they end late,” he says. “You don’t have a lot of time to be lazy.” But students who perform well on the job have opportunities to get promoted and switch to more desirable positions, taking on roles that they say might prepare them to enter the workforce after graduation. “By the time I go into the job market, I’ll already have four years of experience under my belt that I can talk about,” says Fender, who now writes press releases for the school’s public relations office.

Work colleges, many of which emphasize environmental studies, can be good options for students hoping to get jobs in agriculture or sustainability after graduation.

Jesse Keck, a junior majoring in farm and forest stewardship at Sterling College in Craftsbury Common, Vermont, has worked as a blacksmith, on a farm crew taking care of animals, and as a food systems analyst, a role in which he worked to improve the quality of food served on campus.

“For most students, there’s a really big disconnect between work and learning,” Keck says. “Sterling offers to bridge that gap.”

Robin Taffler, executive director of the Work Colleges Consortium, was frank about who she thinks is the right fit for a work college. “I do think there are students who are incredibly privileged who would just not want to work,” she says.

Those looking for luxurious campus facilities might balk at the work college experience, too. With low tuition comes comes few perks. The seven work colleges’ campuses have dorms and gyms, but they’re modest, without the sprawling athletic complexes or world-class libraries and laboratories you’d find at Ivy League schools, Taffler says.

The quality of a work college education varies significantly, depending on the school.

The graduation rate at work colleges in 2012 ranged from as low as 44 percent at Blackburn College in Carlinville, Illinois, to as high as 68 percent at Alice Lloyd. The national average that year was 59 percent.

While work colleges have graduated lawyers and doctors and academics, Taffler says, they’re more focused on instilling in students the value of “earning while learning” than training the next class of Wall Streeters or professional elites.

Fender says it’s worth the strain of juggling a job and classes to get a degree without borrowing tens of thousands of dollars.

“It’s a big blessing to myself and my family,” Fender says. His fiancee also attends College of the Ozarks.

Once married, they, unlike many other young couples, will have one less burden to worry about: student debt.

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