Employer and Higher Ed Partnerships

 I have personally been involved in developing two higher ed and employer partnerships at previous institutions. A presentation from Walmart at Learning 2018 illustrates the opportunity and some of the challenges associated with these programs.

When Starbucks announced their partnership with Arizona State University, it began a slow trickle of other college and corporate partnerships. At the Learning 2018 conference, Disney, McDonald’s, and Walmart each shared their employee college benefit programs. Traditionally, tuition assistance has been managed as an employee benefit. The employer may have a list of approved colleges, and the benefit is often limited to $5,250 per year. (This number is based on IRS requirements that anything above $5250 be taxed as income.) The Starbucks deal offered employees including part-time employees the opportunity for almost free college. Starbucks was providing some money and Arizona State was also offering scholarships to make it work. For Starbucks the goal was to attract and retain a higher level of employee. Much like the military has used money for college as a recruiting tool, Starbucks wanted to leverage this opportunity to attract people interested in college who were looking for a more affordable option.

I have worked on these types of partnerships at two universities. The first was with one of the Walmart regions that was working with National Louis University while I was vice provost there. That partnership ended when Walmart took the program nationwide with a different university partner. Walmart had long focused on promoting from within, and as a result many leaders within the company had no college degree. The Walmart initiative was aimed at increasing the education level of employees often in high level positions. At Western International University, we developed a free college program for a major temporary employment company. Their goal was to create a program that would attract and retain temporary employees. In addition, we developed a non-degree program to also up-skill associates for additional placements. Thus, our program had both a long-term and a short-term component that met different needs for the company and employees. Walmart’s College Degree Program

At Learning 2018, Walmart and its partners shared its latest higher ed partnership. Interestingly enough, Walmart did not mention that this was at least their third attempt at this type of program.

From the Walmart perspective, the new effort is a shift from the education benefit as being PR to having a larger role within company. Walmart had three design objectives:

  • Credit for corporate training and skills
  • Debt-free program
  • Maximizing support to completion

Walmart hopes to demonstrate both business results (increased performance of employees through skill development) and greater employee engagement and retention. There is also a hope that Walmart can attract higher quality candidates for employees looking for a college degree. The Lumina Foundation is partnering with Walmart to provide an analysis of the outcomes of the program.

To develop the program, Walmart partnered with Guild Learning. Guild offered them:

  • Curated set of adult-serving institutions
  • Education coach for students

Walmart trains 200,000 people a year in its academy, making it larger than any university. Employers are a large and growing source of education in parallel to the traditional higher education system. It was important for Walmart that employees receive college credit for these experiences.

Walmart selected three colleges as partners in the program and limited the degree options to a small number such as supply chain management that align with Walmart’s business needs. Currently Walmart has 1,000 students in college classes and another 600 in college start which is a credit bearing pre-college program. These 1,600 employee-learners are from 7,000 students who have been accepted into the program. Over 40,000 employees made inquiries into the program. This is still only a small part of Walmart’s workforce. Lumina is interested in questions of how the program will serve a diversity of employee/learners and how the program can be tweaked to increase the impact for under-served populations.

My Thoughts

As a professional academic, I know that higher ed does not always fully engage with companies and business. At the same time, I have worked on multiple programs where a university has attempted to build those bridges. Sometimes the barrier has been corporate HR and learning and development that either do not understand higher education or see it as a threat. Of 1,800 attendees at the conference, only 30 were interested in this topic.

What does the future look like? Will employer programs replace college education and degrees? Will there be interoperability between these two systems to facilitate movement between types of education? As technology continues to disrupt the labor market and employees need more frequent re-skilling, a question will be what role both employers and colleges play in this process. This challenge will require even greater collaboration than existing partnerships.

In my experience, the greater cost is the time to invest in higher education and not the financial cost. Fixing the cost issue will have only a limited impact on access to higher education.

Walmart is the nation’s largest employer. How many organizations have the scale to produce a program like this? And over time does this lead to a focus in curriculum on the needs of larger employers at the expense of smaller employers? It is great to see greater college access, but it will also be interesting to see how the unintended consequences play out.

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