Amanda Nelson was skeptical when she first heard about Walmart (WMT)’s new employee benefit.
Back in 2015, the married mother of two teenagers joined the retail giant as a department manager at a store in Oklahoma City. Nelson learned about the company’s $1-a-day college program at the Walmart Academy — a training program located in the back of about 200 stores.
“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,” Nelson told Yahoo Finance.
She was still paying off student loans from a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice that she received in 2011. Yet Nelson decided to enroll in a business management and leadership program at Bellevue University — one of the institutions that are part of the big-box retailer’s generous college tuition perk called “Live Better U (LBU).”
With that, Nelson became one of the more than 12,000 associates actively enrolled in Walmart’s nascent debt-free employee college benefit that helps graduates get promoted and become more engaged at work.
She worked full-time, took courses online, and graduated on January 25 — but this time with no loan burden.
“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,” the 35 year-old added.
How it got started
In the summer of 2018, the big-box retailer and the country’s largest private employer began offering the generous education perk to its 1.5 million associates.
Walmart workers can earn degrees through Purdue University Global, Southern New Hampshire University, Wilmington University, University of Florida, Brandman University, and Bellevue University. More than 20,000 have gone through the application process, and are waiting for the program to begin.
Originally, Live Better U 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 Walmart’s 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 Drew Holler, Walmart’s senior vice president of associate experience.
“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,” he added.
So far, Walmart associates have completed more than 88,000 college credits — the equivalent of about $42.5 million. What’s more, the retailer 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,” said Holler. “We kind of had to reassure that the case because it’s a great benefit.”
Employees have been “very responsive” to the program, he said, adding that “we are seeing a higher engagement to these individuals while they are work.”
‘Significant retention play’
Meanwhile, Nelson is one of those reaping the professional benefits. While studying human resources management toward her second degree, 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.
In her new role, she’s responsible for 317 associates helping them navigate human resources, from recruitment to training.
She’s also become an LBU ambassador. “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 associate word of mouth 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 associate signs up and shares the experience with others.
Nelson said there are five associates in the program in her store and another five who are currently talking about joining.
While it’s still early, Holler expects that LBU will be a “significant retention play.” Associates are completing their degrees, but also progress within the company after graduation.
“A big part of that is going to be how we map the associates who go through the program to their next job,” said Holler. “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.”
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 program one of the “most scalable and impactful partnerships,” highlighting what she called 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’s own view is that Walmart students are doing well because of the community they’re building with each other.
“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,” the executive added. “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.