Walmart (WMT)’s nascent debt-free college benefit for employees is helping graduates get promoted and become more engaged at work, according to the company.
In the summer of 2018, the big-box retailer and the country’s largest private employer began offering its 1.5 million U.S. associates debt-free college as part of its $1-a-day college tuition perk, called “Live Better U.”
To date, more than 12,000 full-time and part-time associates are actively enrolled in the Live Better U Program, in-line with the company’s expectations. More than 20,000 have gone through the application process and are waiting for the program to begin.
So far, the associates completed more than 88,000 college credits, worth about $42.5 million. What’s more, Walmart sees the benefits inside the company with more “highly engaged” associates while at work.
“One of the biggest hurdles we’ve had to get over is associates didn’t believe it was just a dollar a day. We kind of had to reassure that the case because it’s a great benefit. Once they’ve come to that realization, they’re very responsive to the fact that the company is willing to solve that problem for them,” said Drew Holler, SVP of Associate Experience. “And, I don’t know if the loyalty increases necessarily, but we are seeing a higher engagement to these individuals while they are work.”
One of those individuals who was skeptical at first was Amanda Nelson, a 35-year-old married mother of two teenagers. Nelson joined Walmart in 2015 as a department manager in a store in Oklahoma City. She’s still paying off student loans from a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice that she received in 2011.
Nelson first learned about the $1-a-day college benefit while at the Walmart Academy, a training program located in the back of about 200 stores that teaches associates customer service skills, retail math, and how to use new technology, among other things.
Nelson, who enrolled in a business management and leadership program at Bellevue University, graduated on January 25 and this time with no debt.
“The burdens of having to pay off a student loan they are very difficult, especially for a family where I have kids now that are starting to get up toward graduating and moving on themselves. Having to pay student loans, it’s tough. That’s why I appreciate the LBU program so much. I’m already done, and there’s no debt,” Nelson told Yahoo Finance.
While in the program, she worked full-time and took courses online. While studying human resources management, the People Lead position at her store became available.
“I felt quite confident after taking those classes going into the interviews and the selection process for that. It did help with my promotional capability,” said Nelson.
As the store’s People Lead today, she’s responsible for 317 associates helping them navigate human resources, from recruitment to training. She’s also become an ambassador for Live Better U.
“I tend to promote it quite a bit because I do feel it’s an amazing program that everybody in this store should participate in,” she said.
Holler said that word of mouth from the associates is one of the more successful ways of marketing the program. He added that they see a higher density in stores of students when one associates signs up and shares the experience with others.
Nelson said there are five associates in the program and another five who are currently talking about joining.
While it’s still early, Holler expects that the debt-free college benefit will be a “significant retention play.” At the same time, the associates are completing their degrees, but also after the graduate and progress within the company.
“A big part of that is going to be how we map the associates who go through the program to their next job. So, as you graduate, if you’re in a store in Florida and you want to be in a distribution center in Alabama that we give you that opportunity as you work through your supply chain degree,” said Holler.
Originally, the Live Better U program offered degrees in business, leadership and management. In the last year, it expanded to offer technology-focused and health-related degrees based on the changing nature of jobs and the new areas the company is heading.
“We’re always tying it back to the skills that we are going to need as a company going forward,” said Holler. “What that results in is associates that go through the program get the opportunity to further their education without debt, but it also allows them to pick up the skills that we see as future skills that we need within the company.”
The Walmart students can earn degrees through Purdue University Global, Southern New Hampshire University, Wilmington University, University of Florida, Brandman University, and Bellevue University.
For the program, Walmart partnered with Guild Education, a company focused on “unlocking opportunity for America’s workforce through education.” Guild Education, whose clients include Disney (DIS), Lowe’s (LOW), and Chipotle (CMG), serves as a marketplace helping companies offer education benefits to employees.
Guild Education’s co-founder and CEO Rachel Carlson called Walmart’s Live Better U one of the “most scalable and impactful partnerships.” Carlson also highlighted what she calls the “promotion impact” of the benefit.
“We are seeing that our students have a much higher likelihood of being promoted within their companies when they first do an education program with us,” said Carlson, adding that they see a “2.6-x increase in promotion opportunities” across Guild Education’s corporate programs.
Carlson noted that Walmart students are also outperforming their peers. Holler speculates that part of the reason the Walmart students are doing well is because of the community they’re building amongst one another.
“You may have, inside of your class that you’re going through, mainly Walmart associates, if not all Walmart associates,” he said. “They create these communities around some of these classes….and you’re working with someone in a store in Seattle, and you may be in a distribution center in Florida. It creates this community of people that hold each other accountable as well as spur each other on.”
Julia La Roche is a Correspondent at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter.