Experience is the best teacher. When it comes to an age-old adage like that, Silver Lake College isn’t just talking the talk.
The college recently rolled out its SLC Works program, the first work college model in the state.
“It’s a full integration of work into the college experience for a student,” says Matt Goff, dean of SLC Works at the college.
As part of the program, students who live in the residence halls are required to work 10 hours each week at an on-campus job. Freshmen are assigned positions (what SLC Works calls “level one jobs”) through a placement program, while upperclassmen submit their resumes and are interviewed for the more advanced positions (level two and three jobs), which require a greater level of knowledge and can even be more managerial in nature.
In exchange for their work, students get tuition credit and
a biweekly stipend for discretionary spending.
“It’s pretty simple: When you come to Silver Lake College and you live on campus, you are required to work,” he says.
Why a work college?
Deciding to become a work college wasn’t something that happened overnight for SLC. The idea began as a seed when a staff member saw another college — Blackburn College in Carlinville, Ill. — that used a work college model.
So, what made the college finally take the leap and set things into motion? Numerous factors pointed the college in that direction.
For starters, SLC administrators thought it would set the college apart for students who are exploring their options for where to pursue their educations. In fact, only eight colleges in the nation are federally recognized as work colleges. While SLC Works doesn’t yet have that formal recognition (the federal guidelines require schools to run a work college program for at least two years), the program is taking steps to join those ranks in the near future.
“We have a really niche market now, and (SLC works is) another way to tell students that we provide them with a very unique experience that will set them up for major success,” Goff says.
The college also recognized an opportunity to answer the call from businesses and employers, which were citing a lack of soft skills such as communication and time management as a challenge with employees who were fresh out of college.
“A lot of those soft skills, those are things they talk about needing out of our graduates,” Goff says. “The work college model helps us to get students prepared in those areas right from the get-go.”
Peter Oswald, director of marketing and public relations at Blackburn College, says the program offers students many benefits.
“The work program provides great experience for all students, as they learn the importance of individual contribution, teamwork, communication, leadership and management skills, and the personal satisfaction of a job successfully completed,” Oswald says.
Blackburn, which has had a work program since 1913, has the statistics to back up that claim.
“Blackburn graduates have a 99 percent placement rate into grad school or the workplace six months after graduation,” Oswald says.
Both colleges also cite the financial benefits of the work college model. The college is able to keep all campus facilities adequately staffed, and students enjoy both spending money and a tuition credit, which lifts the burdensome cost of their education.
“Because of the work program, Blackburn students carry much less student debt than the national average,” Oswald says.
Despite the expected benefits, Goff admits he was nervous to roll the program out to SLC’s students. All incoming freshmen knew that SLC Works was a contingency of their enrollment. Next year, SLC Works will be a requirement across all residence halls — and not just for the freshmen.
Goff was pleasantly surprised with the response. “We have gotten feedback, and we welcome that,” he says. “We’ll continue to grow and learn through that. But, the overall response has been really great. We have seen some pretty awesome strides here.”
Awesome strides, indeed.
SLC is seeing a record number of incoming applications, and the admissions department believes that a lot of that is due to the work program. Additionally, a record number of students are returning to the residence halls next year.
“I attribute that to the fact that relationships are much deeper,” Goff says. “Because of SLC Works, students who may have flown under the radar aren’t anymore. It deepens their connection to the campus, to the staff and to their supervisors.”
Work colleges: the new norm?
Obviously, instituting a work college model offers plenty of benefits. While it likely won’t become the norm for educational institutions — it can be logistically tough to implement — Goff does think colleges will continue to explore how they can better prepare students for life after they leave campus.
“I think other colleges and universities always are looking at how to develop skills that the workforce is really looking for,” he says. “It hasn’t been without its bumps, but we as a college are so excited about the direction and what our future looks like for our students as they develop through the work college.”