Saturday, December 3, 2022

Amazon’s Employees Can Go to College, Free. What’s in It for Higher Ed?

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At the College of Lake County, a two-year institution outside of Chicago, the mission is clear: educating and uplifting a predominantly Hispanic, low-income student population. That’s why the college has decided to join Amazon’s sweeping free-tuition program for hourly workers.

Amazon announced on Thursday that its employees will have tuition covered at the College of Lake County, and at more than 200 campuses and certificate programs across the country, through its Career Choice program. More than half of Career Choice’s participants identify as Black, Hispanic, or Native American — the same groups of students that the College of Lake County wants to serve.

“It is helping remove one of the most significant barriers to higher education, which is cost,” said Ali R. O’Brien, vice president for community and work-force partnerships for the College of Lake County. At the college, Amazon workers will be able to study high-demand fields like health care, IT, legal studies, and advanced manufacturing and technology.

“We’re really committed to working in an equitable way with responding to our local community,” O’Brien said.

Amazon’s announcement is an eye-catching development in the yearslong effort across higher education to enroll more adult learners and increase the share of the U.S. population that has some education beyond high school. While the jury’s still out on whether tuition-benefit programs deliver on all their promises, as most are relatively new, they have become an increasingly popular offering for major corporations. Last fall, Amazon announced a $1.2 billion investment to expand its efforts.

Amazon employees will have choices. They can enroll at a local participating college and take a few courses en route to a certificate or credential, or they can enroll in a full associate- or bachelor’s-degree program.

If workers start at a community college that’s within Amazon’s network of institutions, they’ll be able to transfer to a four-year college that is also in the network. For instance, in North Carolina, employees who take courses at one of Amazon’s in-state community college partners can continue their education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Alternatively, Amazon workers will be able to learn online at four “national partner” institutions: Southern New Hampshire, National, and Western Governors Universities, and Colorado State University Global.

The programs that are available tuition-free to Amazon workers will depend on the college. At the College of Lake County, course offerings are concentrated primarily in the high-demand fields noted above. At Southern New Hampshire, Amazon employees will be able to take courses in the university’s full suite of undergraduate programs, said Paul J. LeBlanc, the university’s president.

In the weeks since Southern New Hampshire began building its partnership with Amazon, the university has already enrolled more than 2,400 Amazon employees, according to LeBlanc.

“When we take an adult student or client that we’re serving and you don’t tether them to a schedule or place, it makes a big difference,” he said.

Unlocking Opportunity

So, what’s in it for the colleges?

For institutions in Ohio, the Amazon partnership is, in part, a way to expand enrollment in a state that’s struggling mightily to enroll enough students, according to Crain’s Cleveland Business.

Officials at the College of Lake County also hope the program will put the institution on the radar of more local students. Career Choice will connect the college with regional Amazon locations and help the college directly meet the needs of the area’s work force, O’Brien said.

“Connecting through this program is another way that we have a direct relationship with an employer who is upskilling and reskilling the work force, and that really falls in the sweet spot of community colleges,” O’Brien said.

For Amazon, “upskilling” — increasing workers’ knowledge base and skill sets in expanding fields — is the primary goal. Tammy Thieman, global program lead at Career Choice, told Work Shift that the company was trying to “make it as easy as possible for folks to go to school.”

The pandemic seems to have increased the appetite of employers to offer tuition-benefit programs, said Sean R. Gallagher, executive director of the Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy at Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies.

“There’s been a renewed emphasis and, it appears, an increase in funding for worker upskilling,” Gallagher said. “Investments in worker training appear to have been very flat in previous years, even though there were these signature education-benefit programs being announced.”

Amazon has drawn its fair share of criticism for, among other things, its treatment of workers. But the goals of its college program are commendable, even if its prospects remain unclear.

One aspect of the new Amazon partnership is unusual: The tech giant will be working directly with colleges, instead of through a middleman like Guild Education. Guild manages tuition-benefit programs for Walmart and Chipotle, steering students to one of their partner colleges; both companies cover tuition. Arizona State University created InStride, a similar benefit-management company as a spin-off, in 2019, and formed partnerships with Starbucks and Uber to offer online courses to their employees.

It is significant that Amazon is doing this on its own, said Phil Hill, a partner at MindWires, an ed-tech consulting company, and publisher of the PhilOnEdTech blog. “It sort of affirms the importance of the market, but it also says, ‘Hey, there are homegrown ways to do it. You don’t have to work with a partner,” Hill said.

Now that the expanded partnership has taken shape, it remains to be seen how many workers will take advantage of the free tuition — and how many of those students will persist and graduate with at least a credential. According to Amazon, 50,000 of its workers have participated in Career Choice over the past decade, but that’s a tiny share of its work force.

Free tuition aside, the draw for Amazon employees is the wide range of programs they are able to choose from, Gallagher said.

With a work force the size of Amazon’s, partnering with only two or three universities might make it difficult to give employees what they’re looking for. With more than 200 current options and additional institutions likely to join, it gives employees a chance to look for what works best for them and the skills they want for their future.

“The research shows, it’s not only if you have a degree, it’s what degree, what program you were in,” said LeBlanc, of Southern New Hampshire. He said he hopes the effort “really genuinely unlocks opportunity.”

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