Among Benefits For Walmart Workers: A Degree

Correction Nov. 7, 2010

The initial Web version of this story located American Public University in the wrong West Virginia city. The school is based in Charles Town.

Walmart employee James Buskell. Mito Habe-Evans/NPR

hide captionWalmart employee James Buskell expects to graduate with a degree in retail management in 2012.

Mito Habe-Evans/NPR

Every night at 9 p.m., Walmart employee James Boskell sits down to his dining room table with a laptop to work on his college degree — courtesy of his employer.

The world's largest retailer is now offering its 1.4 million employees a college education. Through a partnership with American Public University, employees can take online courses toward a bachelor's or master's degree. And Walmart will cover up to 15 percent of tuition.

Boskell has cleared away the cats, the markers and pieces of construction paper — usually left over from one of his kid's school projects — and logged on to a couple of online courses.

"The first one is 'Foundations of Online Learning and Proficiency in Writing,'" he reads. "I'll be writing a paper probably later this evening or tomorrow."

The partnership between Walmart and APU is an exclusive deal that education experts say is worth watching, but it's employees who'll determine if the program succeeds or not.

Responding To Employees

Boskell, 36, is a zone merchandise supervisor at a Walmart in Elkton, Md. He dropped out of college 14 years ago and bounced around before taking a part-time job pushing carts and selling shoes at Walmart. Last June, when the company announced it was going to help employees sign up for college, Boskell was one of the first to jump at the chance.

"In the back of my head, it's always been there, like, 'What if you finish school?' or 'Why didn't you finish school?'" he says. "This is something to better myself." He's expecting to graduate with a degree in retail management in 2012.

Walmart isn't sure how many of its employees are as motivated as Boskell, but when it surveyed 32,000 workers — from store managers to cashiers — 70 percent liked the idea of taking college courses online, especially if it led to a four-year degree.

"We were really blown away by that statistic," says Alicia Ledlie Brew, Walmart's director for lifelong learning. "We didn't expect there to be as much acceptance with such a large population as we saw in those survey results."

"Following up on that survey, we kept hearing again and again, 'I've tried going back to school, and it's just very hard for me to make my schedule work with my family and work life,'" Brew says.

She says the feedback supported an idea that she and other top executives at Walmart had been pushing: the need to partner with an accredited, affordable online university that offered working adults a chance to further their education.

After looking at 81 schools, Walmart picked American Public University, a for-profit school based in Charles Town, W.Va., best known for its work with the U.S. military.

Willing To Give It A Try

For Walmart, it was a marriage made in heaven. But for Wally Boston, president and CEO of American Public University, initially there were concerns.

"We did not want to put ourselves in a situation where our reputation for quality was damaged," Boston says. He was concerned that potentially doubling APU's enrollment might stretch its services and instructors beyond their capabilities, especially because Walmart employees tend to be older adults who are juggling work and family.

"An adult population is actually considered high-risk," Boston explains. "You can have debt issues managing your budget and those problems in life can exacerbate someone's ability to complete an academic degree — and many times leads to students dropping out."

Brew says the company is putting $50 million into this project over the next three years to make sure it succeeds. So far, only 400 Walmart employees have signed up, but the company intends to roll the project out slowly.

For Boskell, a bachelor's degree will be icing on the cake. His real education, he says, has been here on the job. In fact, APU is giving Boskell credits for the 14 years he's worked at Walmart.

"I don't expect to get 80 percent of my degree on experience credits," Boskell says, "but the time that I've put in here is valued, and that meant a lot to me."

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