NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: Walmart announced last month that it will offer debt-free college education to its 1.4 million employees in the United States. It isn’t the first company to do it, but it is by far the largest employer to do so.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: This seems to have only upsides for a company often criticized for low pay. And it does help it look more civic-minded.
Leigh Jones has followed this story. She’s WORLD’s digital editor and is here now to talk about it.
Leigh, what are some of the details of Walmart’s college program?
LEIGH JONES, DIGITAL EDITOR: Well, Walmart is offering to pay for tuition, books, and fees for any part- or full-time employees who are willing to pursue one of two degrees, either business or supply chain management. And those are obviously directly tied to Walmart’s business model. The degrees have to come from one of three universities. They’re all non-profits. The University of Florida, Brandman University, or Bellevue University. And they’ve all been chosen for their success at working with adult learners.
And what makes Walmart’s program unique?
JONES: Well, as you’ve already noted, Walmart is one of the largest—or the largest private employer in the United States. And so that elevates it already, ahead of some other companies who offer similar programs. Listeners might remember that Starbucks announced a sort of similar program several years ago to a lot of fanfare, but Walmart covers a lot more people, and they’re also all entry-level workers. And so that sets it apart from some other companies who might be offering this to higher-level workers who may be getting, say, master’s degrees or something like that. This is really targeting people who wouldn’t otherwise have an opportunity to go to college. The other thing that separates it a little bit from other programs like it is that Walmart isn’t requiring employees to stay with the company after they’ve gotten their degrees. So, it doesn’t come with any strings attached. Some other companies will require to get their investment require employees to stick around a little bit longer.
Let’s talk about the bigger picture, now. What do experts in workforce development say about this trend of employers offering to pay for employees’ college?
JONES: So, workforce development experts have really been looking at the state of the economy in the country and how colleges are trying to better prepare graduates for jobs in the real world, and some are doing a better job than others, and a lot of it depends on the degree programs or the degrees that students seek, but there’s still this gap, oftentimes, between formal education and workforce readiness. And so that’s why you see a lot of companies stepping up and trying to do this training on their own. And so to have Walmart step into this and really gives that idea a boost. And workforce development experts are really excited about it. Robert Doar, who’s a resident scholar in poverty studies with the American Enterprise Institute told me that Walmart’s move sends a strong message about the role businesses can play in helping develop the U.S. workforce, especially at a time when there’s a lot of competition in the market for employees.
Well, what are Walmart’s expectations and then what effect could this have on other employers?
JONES: So, Walmart expects about 68,000 of its 1.4 million employees to participate within the first five years. And although the program only includes two degree plans right now, Walmart has talked about expanding it in the future to other fields of study, which I’m sure some other employees might want to do that. In terms of what this will do trend-wise other companies are going to have to follow suit, because they’re competing for these workers, and they really have to step up their game in terms of being able to offer benefits that are either similar or comparable. So, a lot of analysts expect that we’ll see more and more of this in the coming years as companies realize that workforce development and investing in their employees is a vital part of retaining them.
Leigh Jones is managing editor of WORLD Digital.
JONES: Thanks, Mary.