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The Rising Disconnect and Discontent With Employer-Sponsored College: Building a Better Tuition Plan

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Thu Sep 09 2021

The Rising Disconnect and Discontent With Employer-Sponsored College: Building a Better Tuition Plan
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Imagine this encounter. Bobby, a three-year bank teller at Wells Fargo, approaches his manager to request financial support to undertake training.

“What training would you like to undertake Bobby?”

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Bobby replies, “I’m thinking of taking some Latin dance classes in my local neighborhood.”

You’re probably thinking that there’s no way a major bank would fund training that is so disconnected and so irrelevant to the needs of the organization. And you’d be correct that in normal circumstances, such a request would be nothing short of absurd.

But let’s overlay staff training into a package we call the “college degree.” You likely have seen many headlines of major employers supporting college access. And that is certainly a good thing. Any avenues to break down barriers and help employees attain a degree support upward social mobility. And it’s not a one-sided transaction either.

  • The employee gains more job opportunities, promotions, and earnings.

  • The employer builds a a retention strategy that keeps staff longer, which reduces rehiring fees that are less than tuition support fees as well as attracts more motivated candidates.

This sounds fantastic at a somewhat superficial level. But if we peel back a couple of layers, some fundamental flaws start to appear, including:

  • Poor uptake from employees due to the significant financial gap between employer tuition support and the cost of college. Typical tuition support ranges from three to five thousand dollars per year. The average cost of a college degree in the US is $120,000. So although any support is better than none, in practical terms this is akin to a singledrop of water in the ocean.

  • Degree duration prohibits graduation before leaving employment. The average duration of a college degree is five to six years, and that average accounts for predominantly full-time students, not students who also are working a full-time job. The average tenure in the United States of an employee is 4.1 years (US Bureau of Labor Statistics). The tenure math doesn’t add up, and the outcome is that students are suffering and left with significant student loan debt in addition to no degree.

  • Lack of relevance to employment skills. Both sides lose from a traditional college education that does not provide career-relevant skills. How much value does an aspirational manager at Walmart (or the corporation itself) obtain from an employer-sponsored drama course or a Chipotle cashier looking to move up the ranks from studying a course in Viking history? Not much.

  • Lack of access due to entry barriers. Many employees do not follow the traditional path. They may not have a great high school GPA or SAT scores. Many talented workers achieve their ranks through sweat equity. But you won’t see a tick box for sweat equity on a college application anytime soon.

These issues are significant. The outcome is that employers rarely promote and encourage the uptake of degree tuition assistance, and employees run into more barriers than benefits. The result is that somewhere between 1 and 5 percent of staff take up a tuition supported program (International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, 2019), not exactly a glowing success.

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_Traditional US institutions are 1,000 percent more expensive than international counterparts, take twice as long to complete, and do not meet corporate needs. —_Fox News interview with Ducere CEO

So, how can we tackle the major challenges of degrees that are too expensive, too lengthy, have too many barriers to access, and are irrelevant to the skills employers need? We need to design a university degree initiative for enterprises that is:

  • One-third the duration

  • One-tenth of the cost

  • Equipped with flexible entry options

  • Tailored to each individual organization’s strategic needs

If you think this sounds like the holy grail of enterprise education—obtaining all the benefits of increased retention and increasing morale while also solving the skills needs and strategic challenges of the workplace—well, you’d be right. If the will and vision is there to reimagine what corporate education could be, you can find many examples of affordable, accredited university degrees that also meet the skills development needs of the modern workplace.

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