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Walmart, the world's largest retailer of everything from groceries to gardening supplies, is offering its 1.4 million employees a college education. It's partnered with American Public University to provide online courses toward a bachelor's degree or a master's degree. It's a deal that education experts say is worth watching.

But as NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports, it's Walmart employees who will determine whether this partnership succeeds.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Every night at 9 p.m., James Boskell sits at his dining room table with his laptop to work on his college degree.

Mr. JAMES BOSKELL (Walmart Employee): I'm trying to remember...

(Soundbite of typing)

Mr. BOSKELL: We go to APUS.edu, and I'll sign in.

(Soundbite of typing)

SANCHEZ: Tonight, he's 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.

Mr. BOSKELL: The first one is Foundations of Online Learning, and then Proficiency in Writing. I'll be writing a paper - probably either later this evening or tomorrow.

(Soundbite of typing)

SANCHEZ: Boskell, 36, is a zone merchandise supervisor at Walmart in Elkton, Maryland. He dropped out of college 14 years ago and bounced around before taking a part-time job pushing carts and selling shoes at Walmart. So 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.

Mr. BOSKELL: In the back of my head it's always been there - like, what if you finish school, or why didn't you finish school? And honestly, this is something to better myself.

SANCHEZ: 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.

Ms. ALICIA LEDLIE BREW (Director for Lifelong Learning, Walmart): We were really blown away by that statistic. We did not expect there to be as much acceptance with such a large population as we saw in those survey results.

SANCHEZ: Alicia Ledlie Brew is Walmart's director for lifelong learning.

Ms. LEDLIE BREW: Following up on that survey, we kept hearing again and again people saying, I've tried going back to school and it's just very hard for me to make my schedule work, with my family and my work life.

SANCHEZ: Brew says this 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, West Virginia, best known for its work with the U.S. military.

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

Mr. WALLY BOSTON (President, CEO, American Public University): We did not want to put ourselves in a situation where our reputation for quality was damaged.

SANCHEZ: Boston was afraid that potentially doubling APU's enrollment might stretch its services and instructors beyond their capabilities, especially because Walmart employees tend to be older adults, juggling work and family.

Mr. BOSTON: An adult population is actually considered high-risk. And the reason is, there are so many distractions. You can have debt issues and 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.

SANCHEZ: Walmart's Alicia Ledlie Brew says the company is putting $50 million into this project over the next three years, to make sure it succeeds. But almost all of that money is to help employees with tuition, not prepare them for college-level work.

Ms. LEDLIE BREW: Is it appropriate that some of that money be spent on remediation? Should we be helping people get ready to go to college?

SANCHEZ: So far, only 400 Walmart employees have signed up. The company wants to roll the project out slowly. As for James Boskell:

Mr. BOSKELL: Good morning, everybody. Could I have the hardline and metroplex department managers...

SANCHEZ: It's 8:30 a.m., and Boskell is well into his morning routine, meeting with other managers and helping out at the cash register. He's efficient, likeable, and moving up in the company. A bachelor's degree from American Public University 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.

Mr. BOSKELL: You know, I don't expect to get 80 percent of my degree on experience credits, but the time that I've put in here is valued. And that meant a lot to me.

SANCHEZ: Boskell expects to graduate with a degree in retail management in 2012.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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