“Throughout its 82 years of existence, the Lord had richly blessed Williams,” Norman said. “God had providentially sustained the school, and I was confident he would continue to do so. I also knew that if we were going to wisely steward his provisions to thrive and grow, our future would require strategic innovation and revitalization.”
During his first year at WBU, he went to see a donor—a successful entrepreneur who farms large tracts of land and owns several farm equipment dealerships. The farmer began to share ideas he thought might help WBU.
“I could show you how to plant strawberries,” he offered. “Students could work the farm, and you could make some money to help with scholarships. And maybe you could start a restaurant.”
That “flipped a switch,” Norman said. On the drive back to campus, he and a colleague began to strategize a plan to fund financial aid while providing a way for students to graduate debt-free. As a work college, they could create university-owned businesses and community partnerships to allow students the opportunity to earn their education.
That can sound too good to be true, and for most colleges, it is. There are only nine work colleges in the United States.
One reason many schools don’t adopt this approach is that they don’t see work education as part of a liberal arts education, or they may attempt to address the issue differently, Norman said. Another reason is financial—many schools either don’t have the funds or are unwilling to devote the resources needed for implementation.
In addition, a student working part-time during a school year probably can’t earn the cost of his or her education. The average cost of private college tuition is more than $36,000—at Williams, it’s around $30,000.
But Norman was committed to finding a way, for both practical and, increasingly, theological reasons.
“The more I thought about this, the more I discovered the prominent place the Bible gives to the idea of work,” Norman said. “For 15 years, I taught theology at two Christian colleges and a Baptist seminary, but I did not take the doctrine of work as seriously as I should have. Now I have a deeper appreciation of the importance of work in God’s purposes for us.”
TGC asked Norman what he’s learned about work, how he makes up the tuition difference, and what benefits he’s seeing at the Southern Baptist Convention’s only work college.
How has your view of work changed over the last five years?
In Genesis 1, what’s the first thing revealed to us? God is a creating God. He is working. And we’re made in his image—we were created to work. Dignity, mission, identity, worship, and purpose are all embedded in work.
In the New Testament, Jesus is a carpenter—the Messiah embodies and values the role of work in his earthly ministry. In fact, when we survey the entirety of the biblical narrative, we see many of God’s servants engaged in missional gospel ministry, and much of this service occurs in the context of their vocations. Whether a farmer or city planner or tent maker or king or physician or soldier or queen or merchant—whatever one’s vocation—God intends for his people to live out their faith in the context of work.
When we survey the entirety of the biblical narrative, we see many of God’s servants engaged in missional gospel ministry, and much of this service occurs in the context of their vocations.
I thought, Why haven’t we been explicitly teaching this? Why haven’t we been teaching our students a Christian work ethic as part of their educational experience?
Overall, Christian higher education has done well, in my opinion, in educating the heads and hearts of our students. However, many of us haven’t been as strategic or intentional in teaching and mentoring the virtue of hands. A biblically faithful worldview needs to give a prominent place to work and vocation, and we need to incorporate this in our curricula.
Faithfulness to this commitment requires the faculty, staff, coaches, and administrators of a Christian college to mentor and model what the Bible teaches about work. There are some things you can learn pushing a broom or a shovel, or working at a computer, that you can’t learn in a classroom. Whether the work is with our hands or with our minds, if we’re serious about a robust model of Christian education that focuses on the total person, our education efforts must incorporate work education throughout the college experience.
How did your board respond to your proposal to add a work program? And how do you cover the gap between the money earned and the actual cost of tuition?
In the fall of 2019, we presented to our board the current and projected challenges confronting Christian universities. We tried to be holistic in our presentation, proposing the creation of a financial, curricular, pedagogical, and missional model that would provide students the opportunity to earn their education and, if they followed the plan, give them the real possibility of graduating with no student debt.
The board was not only open to the proposal—they were enthusiastically supportive.
In our model, we tell Williams students the cost of their education, then offer them work to offset the tuition and fees. The work scholarship doesn’t cover the entire education cost, so if a student is eligible for government grants, we require her to apply for that. The final part of her education expense is met through gifts from donors who share our mission and support the idea of students earning their education.
The board overwhelmingly agreed and approved our proposal—an initiative we call Williams Works. I have yet to meet anyone who thinks it’s a bad idea for students to work and earn their education.
This reminds me of athletic scholarships, where students earn scholarships by playing in games that can earn their colleges revenue. How is this the same or different from that?
The work scholarship is similar to other performance-based scholarships. A student-athlete agrees to meet certain expectations and participate in his sport, and in return, receives a scholarship for his athletic performance. The student-musician receives a scholarship in consideration of her music performance and contributions.
Likewise, the student-worker receives a work scholarship for his work performance. The students in the work program must meet certain standards to receive their scholarship. These students even receive a grade for their work performance.
You’ve been doing this for a few years. Is it worth it?
Absolutely! Now in our fourth year, we’ll have approximately 100 students this fall in Williams Works. They’re tending greenhouses, selling produce, operating a gift shop, raising free-range eggs, providing accounting and bookkeeping services, managing a small boutique hotel, working with an engineering firm, providing landscaping for homes and businesses, working with health care professionals at the hospital, and networking with local businesses.
Even better, Williams Works has revitalized our mission and broadened our understanding of what education needs to be. There is a decline in college-ready and college-willing students across the nation. Many are questioning the need for a college education, especially given the rising costs that push higher education beyond the reach of many families. Williams Works is a way to overcome what for many seems to be an insurmountable barrier.
I also believe the work program has benefited our students in their academic performance and enriched their college experience. We know the more invested students are in their education—such as working for it—the more likely they are to be academically successful and to graduate. Work experience also teaches students about time management, focus, responsibility, and integrity—all traits essential for academic and career success.
The work program has not detracted from our goals for Williams but expanded them. I’ve even rethought outcomes and overall emphases for our school. We often measure success in graduation rates and academic recognition. These are important metrics for program review, but I’m no longer satisfied with that. I believe the Lord wants us to ultimately measure our efforts in terms of preparing our graduates to be “salt and light” leaders.
Two Christian leaders from church history model what I desire for our graduates. The Lord used William Wilberforce and Abraham Kuyper in their vocations, transforming their work into platforms for Christian leadership and gospel mission. My heart is for every Williams student to graduate with a comparable sense of calling and purpose—a belief that the Lord can transform his or her job into a platform for gospel ministry.
Studies show that when we don’t work, we struggle with purpose, with identity—even with mental and physical health. When we do work, we flourish. Your work is your mission. It’s part of your worship, your service unto the Lord.
So for us, providing our students with robust work education experience is a way to be theologically faithful to what we believe God’s Word teaches and to our mission. Our work is a way to glorify God. That’s what we want for our students. That’s our mission at Williams Baptist University.