College of the Ozarks, a Model for Higher Ed?

by Robert VerBruggen

In Wednesday’s debate, Newt Gingrich held up the College of the Ozarks as a model for other schools to follow: “You cannot apply to it unless you need student aid, and they have no student aid. You have to work 20 hours a week during the year to pay tuition and books. You work 40 hours a week during the summer to pay for room and board. Ninety-two percent of the students graduate owing no debt; the 8 percent who owe debt owe $5,000 because they bought a car.”

I agree that the school does plenty right: It’s good for students to graduate debt-free, and to have work experience. It’s great that College of the Ozarks doesn’t participate in the federal student-loan and work-study programs. The school turns away nine applicants for every one it accepts, which might indicate that more schools like it would be well received. It seems to have reasonable academic statistics; the middle 50 percent of its students score a 20–25 on the ACT, which is a little above the average, and the six-year graduation rate is above the national average of 60 percent. But that doesn’t mean it’s an example of the free market at work, or that its policies can be effective on a wider scale.

As Gingrich noted, the school has a policy of targeting students with financial need — in each class, the requirement is waived for only 10 percent of students. This can be seen as seeking out the people who are most in need of low-cost educational options. It can also be seen as vacuuming up as much federal money as possible — because the school does have its students apply for federal grants.

All in all, of the $17,600 tuition, only $4,060 is paid for from the money students make working. For the students who receive federal aid, up to $8,450 comes from the federal and state governments, and the rest is paid for out of the school’s funds. For the 10 percent of students who don’t demonstrate financial need, the school simply foots the portion of the bill not funded by the student’s work. And remember, the jobs are on-campus, so money students make working comes from the college’s funds as well. (To be fair, some of the jobs would need to be done by other workers if students didn’t do them, and others might bring in revenue, such as the school’s farm.) This model won’t work as well for a school whose students don’t qualify for so much financial aid, or whose donors aren’t so generous.

#more#As for the work requirements themselves, they’re quite reasonable — 15 hours per week while school is in session, plus two 40-hour weeks. To pay for $5,600 in room and board, the students can dip into their own funds, work six extra 40-hour weeks in the summer for a 50 percent discount, or work twelve weeks in the summer to have the entire amount forgiven. Though schools don’t normally require it like College of the Ozarks does, working part-time during school and full time during the summer is something plenty of students have done (yours truly included). Working for room and board amounts to almost $12 an hour, though working for tuition money is considerably less remunerative if you count only the $4,060 in wages and not the scholarship money students receive ($7.25 an hour, if we assume 32 15-hour weeks and two 40-hour ones).

However, judging by the school’s jobs website, some proportion of students get assignments that don’t relate to their field of study; you might end up as a lab assistant, or you might end up doing laundry. There’s nothing wrong with working unskilled jobs to put yourself through college, of course, but it cuts against the school’s promotion of its work-study program as academically valuable, rather than just an exercise in character- and experience-building.

Can other schools learn a thing or two from College of the Ozarks? Yes. Is it everything Gingrich made it out to be? No.

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