Getting the Most out of Life

“Hard Work U” Allows Students to Graduate Debt-Free

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At “Hard Work U,” graduates are doing the unthinkable: emerging from school without debt.

Otherwise known as College of the Ozarks, this small Christian liberal arts college in Point Lookout, Missouri, offers a financial aid program that enables students to pay off their tuition by working for the school.

When you consider that today’s college students graduate with an average of nearly $30,000 in student loan debt, $0 is a number worth noticing.

How Does It Work?

“Hard Work U” offers a one-of-a-kind financial aid package that combines a student work program, federal and state grants, and a school-sponsored scholarship.

The average cost of tuition for a C of O student is about $18,000 per year. Students are able to cover around $4,200 of this by working in more than 100 different work stations around campus, including the computer center, fire department, public relations office, dairy barn, and print shop. They are required to work 15 hours per week during the school year, plus one 40-hour week each semester.

“Our students go [into the workforce] with a distinct advantage,” says Valorie Coleman, College of the Ozarks public relations director, “as they have already honed their communication skills and their ability to multitask, and have obtained a working knowledge of many practical areas of business.”

Students who qualify for federal and state aid, such as Pell Grants and Missouri State Grants, are able to apply those amounts toward their yearly tuition as well, and the remainder is then covered by a donor-funded College of the Ozarks Cost of Education Scholarship. If a student doesn’t qualify for federal or state aid, their Cost of Education Scholarship will make up the difference.

Out-of-pocket tuition costs for each graduating student at College of the Ozarks total $0. Students are also able to gain valuable work experience; the college provides “work performance grades” along with course grades on transcripts.

Worth noting: These figures only cover tuition; room and board fees must be paid separately. Students are able to work up to 12 additional weeks per term during summer vacation, counted in two 6-week sessions of 40 hours per week, to help cover room and board.

Benefits of Graduating Debt-Free

It’s easy to understand that graduating with no student loan debt is a good thing, but what does that actually look like? Here are some of the biggest benefits:

  • More options. Rather than rushing to find a job—any job—to start paying down their balances, students have flexibility. They can pursue work that matters to them, even if it doesn’t pay as much. They also have the option to travel, stay at home with kids while their partner works, and many other arrangements that are more difficult when you’re saddled with student loan debt.
  • More freedom. A record-high 15 percent of Millennials have been forced to move back home with their parents, a trend largely attributed to a combination of high student loan debt and lack of available jobs. Graduating debt-free reduces the likelihood of returning to the Hotel of Mom and Dad.
  • More savings for the future. Many people put off investing in their retirement until their late 20s or 30s because they don’t feel like they have the financial bandwidth to put anything extra aside. Graduating debt-free allows students to start saving straight away. They can also put more money toward shorter-term goals like saving for a car or the down payment on a house. “Many graduates talk about the freedom this gave them as they started careers and pursued their dreams of starting a business or owning a home,” Coleman says.

A novel approach by the College of the Ozarks gives college students the chance to work for their tuition and leave college without debt, all while gaining invaluable work experience. Ultimately, this puts them ahead of their peers and prepares them to jump right into the workforce.

Paula Pant is the founder of award-winning website and a journalist and blogger specializing in personal finance, real estate and lifestyle design. She has been featured more than three dozen publications, including Forbes, DailyFinance, Marketplace Money, Business Insider, Inc. Magazine, and many more.