There’s a new classroom building going up at the College of the Ozarks.
No big deal in that. New buildings spring up on college campuses all the time. Except elsewhere, the students don’t usually build them.
Here they do, and that’s not the half of it. Students also run the college’s fire department, airport and restaurant, and raise cattle and pigs, some of which wind up, in one form or another, on the menu.
In exchange for all that, they get a free college education.
“This is Hard Work U,” said Jerry Davis, president of one of the Ozarks’ best-kept educational secrets.
All students at the College of the Ozarks are required to work 15 hours a week on the 930-acre campus of rolling hills and mountain vistas.
“We try to establish a work ethic, to show what it takes to work, as well as the role of work,” said Michael Howell, a history professor.
Glen Thompson works not one but three jobs, as a jack-of-all-trades in the music department, a firefighter and a groundskeeper.
In the music department, he hauls equipment, helps set up for concerts and does clerical work. As a groundskeeper, he was in charge of a mowing crew in the summer. And at the fire department, he has done everything from battling a brush fire to administering aid to athletes with broken bones.
Although the work is tiring, Thompson said he comes from a family of hard workers, and he enjoys the excitement of occasionally being called out of class to answer an emergency.
“The only time I run into trouble studying is not with work but if I start goofing around,” he said.
The college, founded in 1906, draws many of its 1,500 students from Midwestern farms or from families who have worked overseas as missionaries, so they are used to hard work. Those admitted can have a family income of no more than $20,000 to $42,000 a year, depending on the size of the family and how many members are in college.
Not only is there no tuition, but room and board ($1,100 a semester for those who stay in the dorms) can be worked off, too, by taking a summer job on campus.
“I think this is the only college today that promotes work and discourages debt,” Davis said.
Students can’t even take out a federally insured loan since the college dropped out of the program a few years ago. Officials feared they were sending students the wrong message by encouraging them to rack up thousands of dollars in debt before going out into the world.
Anyone who came to the college to have fun picked the wrong place. The school has no social fraternities and says its mission is to provide a Christian education. That means, among other things, being polite to teachers, taking hats off in the cafeteria and offering prayers before meals.
“We’re pretty old-fashioned,” Davis said. “There are no coed dorms, none of that here. Most of us grew up with standards of decency. We realize that’s not the case with everybody anymore, but we don’t want to be just like everybody else.”
Angela Ussery said such strictness in the ‘90s doesn’t bother her at all. The outgoing 19-year-old says her goal is to become the host of the “Today” show: “Because you’ve got to dream big, right?”
The college relies on donations and, of course, student labor. But Davis said it cannot meet its annual budget of $24 million without dipping into its $200 million endowment.
Mike Wonderly, a 33-year-old student, helped construct the school’s agricultural building. The construction work is hard and sometimes even dangerous, and some students complain of being too tired to study.
“But it’s kind of a tension release for me,” Wonderly said. “You can be kind of stressed-out doing homework and stuff, and then you go to work and laugh with the guys. And it’s something you accomplish, too. You can look around campus and say, ‘Hey, I did that.”’