Missouri school puts students to work for free education

As looming recession is forcing financially strapped schools to raise tuition, many high school students are fretting over how to afford college next fall.

But tucked away in southwest Missouri is a school where dire economic forces matter less, where students don’t worry about tuition, where donors defy the times and continue to enrich school coffers.

At College of the Ozarks, time may not exactly stand still, but one thing never changes: a free education.

None of the 1,500 students at the four-year liberal arts college pays tuition. They labor for a degree, working 15 hours a week in place of tuition. They pay only room and board, and even that can be worked off.

One of only five colleges of its type in the nation, College of the Ozarks is in great demand as annual tuitions average $4,080 in public colleges and $18,273 in private schools, according to a recent survey by The College Board.

“Ninety percent of the kids are here because they can’t afford college,” student Jason Wyatt said.

For every opening, the school has about 12 applicants, President Jerry C. Davis said. That is up from about 10 last year. Ten years ago there were three applicants for every opening.

Strong preference is given to low-income families and students in the upper half of their high school class.

Davis said the free education is enticing to parents, but so is the school’s emphasis on character, Christianity and getting ready for the working world.

“The values here represent the best of what made America great,” Davis said. “We are talking about hard work, faith and opportunity.”

Not much is conventional about College of the Ozarks, which has proudly adopted the moniker “Hard Work U” given to it in a Wall Street Journal article 30 years ago.

Students are as likely to be found behind a broom as a desk. They clean buildings, serve food in the cafeteria, do yard work, run the laundry, answer phones in offices and milk cows for the campus dairy.

The school has its own fire station, where nine student firefighters sleep in case of night alarms. There is a motel, restaurant, print shop, airport and hospital, staffed mostly by students.

The campus is a tourist attraction, especially its museum, where admirers of the school have donated scores of antiques, art, guns, trophy animals and even the original jalopy used in “The Beverly Hillbillies” television show.

At campus stores, students make crafts, stained-glass items, jellies, fruitcake and other products that generate revenue for the school.

Finding jobs for 1,500 students falls to the school’s dean of work, Mayburn Davidson. Work is graded and students are subject to removal from school for repeated absenteeism or bad performance.

Davidson said some students have a no-show problem, usually those who didn’t get the job they wanted.

“I’m convinced they (young people) are not as willing to put it out as they were 10 or 20 years ago,” he said.

But for the most part, students are accustomed to working on the farm or other jobs in high school and do well, Davidson said.

Rules are plentiful at College of the Ozarks. The student handbook states in bold letters that the college can deny an education because of conduct, attitude or appearance “it regards as undesirable.”

Rules prohibit “excessive display of affection in public.” Clothes must not be too revealing. Men are barred from wearing earrings, ponytails or hair below the shoulder.

“We have a long tradition here of neat, hard-working students,” Davis said. “You’re not going to find students with blue and green-spiked hair and earrings hanging out on every part. That doesn’t cut it here.”

Student Khara Brickey said she has been scolded for wearing a short skirt and a tank top. The school doesn’t allow room for diverse expression in clothes or thought, she said.

“It’s so narrow-minded,” said Brickey, who plans to go to fashion school after graduating. “Everyone tries to make people think one way. It’s not so much the religion, it’s just about not learning about diversity. They are not going to be ready for the real world.”

Other students take the rules in stride.

“It doesn’t bother me a bit,” junior Chris Ogle said. “I had the same rules at home.”

Generally, Davis said, students are cooperative because they know what to expect. In addition, the school only accepts students it has screened by interviews.

Before classes begin, new students have to attend a two-week “character camp,” where they hear about the school’s expectations, study etiquette and manners, and write a paper on what makes life worth living.

The school has family income limits for 90 percent of the students it accepts, with most of the exceptions being children of alumni. For a family of four, the income limit is $43,000.

Having students work instead of paying tuition is not a moneymaker for the school.

But the work philosophy is the backbone of College of the Ozarks and a major reason it receives millions of dollars from donors, often in wills and trusts. Those contributions allow the school to keep offering free educations.

The school has an endowment of $254 million, according to its tax form last year. Chief financial officer Rick Hughes said the average for a private school its size is less than $20 million.

Although donors admire the school’s values and work ethic, so do potential employers. Ninety percent of graduates go directly into the workplace, with most of the rest attending graduate school, Howell said.

The students tend to be in great demand, Howell said. Arkansas-based Wal-Mart Corp. once had more store managers who graduated from the College of the Ozarks than from any other school, a company official said.

Cathleen Garrison, employment manager for Leggett & Platt Corp., based in Carthage, Mo., said her company seeks out graduates of the college because they have proven to be loyal and grateful.

“Gratitude is the number-one word,” she said. “College of the Ozarks students are grateful for everything they get because they haven’t been handed anything in life. They’ve worked for everything.”