Williams Baptist University will soon give students a chance to work their way through college, with the potential to graduate debt-free.  The private, Christian university in Walnut Ridge, Ark., announced Monday that it is launching an initiative known as Williams Works, a program that will allow students to work part-time jobs to have their tuition and fees completely covered.

“WBU understands the financial strain students and their families are facing.  It is a hurdle that makes it very difficult for many to even attend college, so we are providing a way for students to get past that financial hurdle and receive an outstanding, Christ-centered education at Williams,” said Dr. Stan Norman, president of WBU.

The centerpiece of Williams Works will be Eagle Farms, a fruit and vegetable farm where students will plant, cultivate and harvest the crops, as well as market the produce. The farm will be located at the northwest corner of the WBU campus, on land that is currently undeveloped.

“This initiative will involve a farmers market and several other outlets for our produce, and we also plan to develop our own line of WBU-branded products.  With over 100 pecan trees already on our campus, we plan to sell Eagle Farms pecans as well as other specialty farm products,” Norman said.

Norman said Eagle Farms will begin by growing fruits and vegetables in the early stages, but future plans call for the addition of agri-tourism elements, such as a fall festival, and he said the farm will expand into other endeavors as needed to provide jobs for students.

WBU will also utilize community partners to provide jobs, including industries in the nearby Walnut Ridge Industrial Park.  Custom Pak, the nearest industry to the Williams campus, has agreed to hire 25 students through Williams Works when the program launches in the fall of 2020.  The company has expressed interest in expanding that number in future years.

“To be clear, Williams Works will involve real jobs with real responsibilities,” Norman said.  â€œThis program is for students who are prepared to work through the college years.  Those who do so will be rewarded richly with the chance to avoid student loan debt after they graduate.”

The WBU president noted that Williams Works is more than just a program for the university.  Rather, he said it marks an institutional turning point.

“The current tuition-driven model of higher education is not working as it should for students or for the institutions.  The costs to students are higher than many can afford.  Colleges and universities are facing declining enrollments and falling revenue.  The paradigm needs to shift, and Williams Works reflects our commitment as a university to move in an entirely new direction,” Norman commented.

WBU will accept 40 incoming freshmen into Williams Works next fall, and it anticipates adding 40 more freshmen into the program in each of the next two years.  The university plans to add greater numbers to the works initiative in subsequent years.

Norman said the work initiative is a natural fit for WBU on many fronts.  The university is in a rural setting and has land available on its campus to be developed into a farm.  The concepts of work and farming are reinforced in the regional culture.

It also reflects the history of the school.  Dr. H.E. Williams, who founded the institution as Southern Baptist College in 1941, operated a print shop, a woodworking shop, a rice and soybean farm, an auto repair business and other enterprises created to provide jobs for many students in the early decades of the school.

Norman noted that work matches the spiritual and academic standards of WBU, as well.

“The Bible begins with God at work in creation, and we read that work was God’s plan for Adam and Eve even before the fall.  Scripture is filled with numerous examples and exhortations about work.  This initiative gives us a great new platform for teaching a Christian ethic of work to our students,” he said.

“Educationally, we are equipping tomorrow’s leaders for work across a broad spectrum of careers.  Incorporating the values of hard work and responsibility into the educational process will be of great value to these students and their future employers.”

Students who are selected for Williams Works will agree to work 16 hours per week, and they will work every week of the fall and spring semesters.  Those who complete their assigned hours will have their cost of education covered, which includes tuition and fees.

Some students will also be allowed to work in the summer months to cover their room and board expenses for the following year.

“It has become painfully clear to us that many students and families have reached the point where a university education is a significant financial burden.  Williams Works is our attempt to ease that burden for those families, and to give graduates a chance to start their adult lives without a crushing amount of student loan debt,” said the president.

Williams Works is open to first-time freshmen who have a 2.6 cumulative high school GPA or higher and an ACT composite score of at least a 19.  The initiative aims to help those with the greatest financial need, so primary, though not exclusive, consideration will be given to applicants who are eligible for federal financial aid.  Students must be willing to work at least 16 hours per week during the fall and spring semester and be enrolled full-time.

Applications for the inaugural class of Williams Works will be accepted through February 1, 2020.  Interested students can get more information and apply for the initiative at williamsbu.edu/WilliamsWorks.

“We believe it is time to change the paradigm of higher education, to make it financially obtainable for every qualified student.  As Williams Works expands in coming years, we expect to produce graduates free from the burden of excessive student loans.  These graduates will be able to pursue careers of their choosing without those undue financial constraints,” Norman said.

Work will begin in coming weeks to develop the first phase of Eagle Farms, and the farm operation is expected to be fully functional by the start of the 2020-21 school year.

The president said a director will eventually be added to run Williams Works, but Dr. Brett Cooper will lead the work initiative in its early stages.  Cooper, who is vice president for creative services & technology and special assistant to the president at WBU, chaired the task force that developed the Williams Works strategy.

Norman went on to note that while Williams Works will make a college education more affordable to many, the value of the education itself will remain undiminished.

“The ultimate goal of Williams Works is to give students the opportunity to receive an academically outstanding education that is thoroughly Christ-centered,” he said.  “Our aim is always to produce graduates who are able to make a difference for good, whatever career they may pursue. We believe Williams Works opens the door for more students to experience that transformative education.”

Photo attached: Dr. Stan Norman announces the launch of Williams Works Monday morning in front of WBU’s Swaim Administration Building